Sometimes beekeepers need to relocate their hives. Perhaps the original location was a bad choice, or you simply want a better situation for hives during a cold winter. Once a hive is established, bees learn its location and know how to find their way home. So how do you make sure your bees don’t get lost when you shift hives to a new position? Whatever your reason for wanting to move a beehive you need to stick to some basic rules.
How do you move a beehive? You can move a hive a short distance so long as it is less than 3 feet. To move bees over longer distances they should be relocated further than their original foraging range which is generally taken as 3 miles. Alternatively, if bees are confined inside their hives for 3 days, they start to forget their original location and are forced to reorient.
In the beekeeping world this is sometimes referred to as the 3-3-3 rule. This rule of thumb provides useful general guidelines to avoid bees getting disoriented and losing contact with their colony.
How do Bees Find their Hive?
When bees leave their hive to forage they’re capable of flying for miles in search of flowering plants before heading back to the hive. But how do they know which way to go in search of their home?
Honey bees have a kind of built-in compass and navigation system using the sun as a reference point. They use the angle between their flight path and the sun to find the direct flight path back to their hives. Not only that, those little bee brains can remember the speed and distance they traveled. And bees are also very sensitive to magnetic fields. It’s thought they use distance, speed, and local magnetic fields as an aid to navigation.
Bee navigation is apparently a learned skill. Worker bees only travel a short distance on their very first trips, when they take orientation flights. This tends to happen on warm sunny days when there’s little wind to blow them off course (smart bees).
Once bees have located their hive they remember its position and instinctively know how to get home… At least until you decide to move the beehive!
But bees can learn new locations for a hive by reorientation. You just need to stay within the limits of the bees navigation system so that they learn the new position of the colony’s home.
How to move a Beehive a Short Distance
Foraging bees always return to exactly the same spot with surprising accuracy. Even if you move their hive just a short distance, if it’s more than 3 feet (or approximately 1 m) they can have difficulty finding their own hive.
If you need to move a hive more than 3 feet but still a relatively short distance, you can do this in stages by moving the hive a couple of feet at a time. If this seems impractical, see the next section on moving hives over a medium distance.
If you move a hive under 3 feet, bees will come back after foraging to find it in slightly the wrong place. But they nevertheless find the entrance to their home. It’s thought they do this by exploring the vicinity of the original beehive and using scent to find their way back.
This is fine if we’re talking about a solitary hive, but if you have a number of hives in close proximity, perhaps in a small apiary, you run the risk of forager bees drifting to other colonies. You’ll end up with a bunch of pretty confused bees! You may want to reconsider the new position of the hive and opt for a position further away instead.
I’ve heard it said that painting hives different colors can help bees distinguish their hive from others nearby. If you fancy trying this, just avoid the color red – bees can’t see red! Also, avoid painting the inside of the hives to prevent any chemical smells. Will colored hives help? I can’t find any proof… But you’ll probably have a lot of fun painting!
Method for moving short distances:
- Prepare the new site for your hive. If you’re moving the hive I’m sure you’re doing it for a reason, so make sure the new position eliminates your problems. Check the path is clear between the new and old site (The bees won’t thank you if you fall over an obstacle during the move).
- Choose a time of day when you are least likely to disturb your bees. The best time is probably the same moment you would inspect your hives, when most of the bees are out foraging and the hive is emptier. If you try to make the move after sunset when the bees have stopped foraging, you might need to close up the hive (I’ve heard that if you do this in low light conditions and use a lamp torch, guard bees may head straight for the light and attack you!)
- Put a strap around the hives so that they stay assembled during the move. You can use a simple ratchet strap to hold the hive boxes together.
- Smoke the hive entrance to keep the bees calm during the move. This avoids having to close the hive entrances. Over a short distance you probably won’t need to confine the bees inside.
- Move the hive to its new location. Take your time and use slow movements. Move it by less than 3 feet, and if necessary leave it 24 hours before moving it again. You can get away with moving the hive more quickly if you do this on a “good flying day”. Because the majority of the bees are flying to and from the hive often, they re-adjust to the new location quickly. Hives can be heavy so watch your back! Ideally you should get some help lifting the hive. Mann Lake make a handy hive carrier made out of metal tubing which fits over the hive and makes lifting much easier.
- Place a branch of leafy vegetation over the entrance. This trick triggers the bees to reorient. As soon as they come out of the hive they will recognize that their surroundings have changed and start reorienting. You may see bees fly out of the box and turn to face the hive, in a similar way to when new forager bees take their first orientation flights. You can remove the branch after two or three days in the new location.
A quick tip if you want to separate two or more hives that are very close to each other. You need to move the hive a very small amount at a time, before moving it in jumps of upto 3 feet. If you immediately move the hive by 3 feet, returning bees risk going into the wrong hive.
If you’re dealing with big hives you can easily split them into more manageable parts. Just remove a few honey supers then replace them when the hive is relocated. It’ll be easier going on your back!
How to move a Beehive a Medium Distance
Moving hives over a medium distance is perhaps one of the more tricky operations when it comes to relocating beehives. If the distance is more than 3 feet but less than 3 miles, the traditional method for moving a hive was to first move the hive further than three miles for about five to six weeks, then move the hive again to its new location.
This is obviously quite a lot of work and means you have to disturb your bees (and strain your back) twice!
However, there is another method which many beekeepers have had success with, and this involves the 3 day confinement technique.
The theory goes something like this. If you enclose your bees inside the hive for upto 72 hours then bees start to get disorientated and begin to “forget” the position of their beehive. Their GPS goes all fuzzy. Three days is the recommended duration, but I’ve read about beekeepers having success with this method even after just 24 – 48 hours of confinement. This technique helps to trigger the bees natural reorientation process.
Any bees that get lost will eventually make their way back to the original nesting site. But with the hive and colony gone these bees will perish. Keeping the bees inside the hive for a couple of days seems to produce better results.
Method for moving medium distances:
- Prepare the new hive location so that everything is in place before you arrive.
- Close up the entrance. But don’t block your bees inside without ventilation. Most beekeepers use use a special moving screen over the entrance which has a wire mesh to allow for air circulation. It also helps if your hive has a screened bottom board and a screened inner cover for added ventilation. Wait until nightfall to confine the bees so that a maximum number of your bees have returned to the hive.
- Leave the bees confined for 72 hours. I’ve heard of beekeepers having success with this method after just 24 or 48 hours, but it seems results vary from one person to another. Try not to do this during hot weather so the hives don’t overheat. If you you can plan the move just before a few days of cooler or rainy weather then this is ideal.
- Strap up the hives or fix them together so that they stay assembled when you move them. You can use one or two ratchet straps to tie down the boxes on top of each other. If you have a lot of supers on your brood boxes you may want to fix them together more securely. I’ve seen beekeepers use a couple of wood strips screwed into each box to make sure the whole hive stays well grouped.
- Move the hive to its new location. Again, get help doing this, and be careful how you handle the hives.
- Place a branch of foliage over the entrance just like with the previous method. The day before you want to release the bees remove the entrance cover. The following day bees will leave the hive and reorient to their new position. Don’t forget to go back and remove the branch after a couple of days.
Moving hives a long distance
If you move beehives more than 3 miles it is traditionally accepted that bees will recognize that their surroundings have completely changed and so they reorient immediately. Bees will typically forage in a three mile radius around their hives, so the new location should be beyond their original foraging ground. However, as with all rules there are exceptions, and i’ve heard some beekeepers can move their hives successfully by only 2 miles.
Make the move during the night or early in the morning to be sure you have as many bees inside as possible.
Method for moving long distances:
- Prepare you new beehive location so that everything is setup as you want before you move the hive.
- Close up all the entrances to the hive at the end of the day. If the weather is hot use a screened cover. In the summer with a big population of bees the hive can overheat quickly. Otherwise a simple block of wood will do the trick.
- Attach the hive boxes together securely. This is especially important if the hives are moving around during transport. Use ratchet straps or even wooden strips to hold all the parts together.
- Transport the bees as gently as possible. Drive carefully and avoid sudden movements. Stack empty hive parts or other objects up against the hive to stop it from moving around during the trip.
- Once in place remove all entrance covers. The following day bees will leave the hive and start reorienting to the new location.
Whatever distance you move your bees it’s a good idea to go back and check on them soon after the move.
Lots of beekeepers have tales to tell about the time they had to move a hive. Tripping up while carrying the hive or forgetting to remove the entrance screen are some common mistakes! With a bit of preparation, you should be fine. And checking on the bees afterward will make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
Personally, I think the most versatile method is to use 72 hour confinement. With this technique you can move your hive any distance you like! Make sure your entrance diversion is conspicuous and close to the entrance. You want the bees come out and say “wow… what’s that!”.
I wish you lots of luck moving your buzzy friends!