What does that extra apiary cost you?

Our neighbourhood gasoline prices in April 2020, left (58.9 cents/litre) and April 2022, right (167.9 cents/litre)

With fuel prices going scary high, I thought that a few comments on bee yards away from the home fortress might be timely. My father, an early migratory beekeeper, had about 800 hives and trucked them into apple pollination in West Virginia, winter locations in South Carolina and Florida, and clover patches in Wisconsin. But his business was centred in western Pennsylvania where he also had thirty locations close to home. That was seventy years ago. Gasoline cost him $0.30/ gallon; his honey sold for $0.10/ pound. Three pounds of honey to buy one gallon of gas. Even with our ridiculously high prices, gasoline is cheaper now than when he was getting started – and vehicles get better mileage.

By the time I had a drivers’ license, my father had just 300 hives in Pennsylvania. My older brothers had taken over the other hives and other states. Those 300 hives were in fifteen locations. Because of robbing concerns, none of the hives were on the farm where we had our extracting shop. So, I couldn’t actually manage his hives until I was sixteen and could drive a truck on the rural roads. When I started driving, I usually worked a cluster of three or four yards that were close to each other, to save travel time and gasoline money.

Part of a 200-hive bee yard in Pennsylvania, 1906.

We could have kept 300 hives in one spot. Some New York and Pennsylvania beekeepers did that, way back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But forage has changed and smaller apiaries (twenty hives each) began to perform better. For one person working alone, smaller yards are better because work can usually be finished before robbing or extremely defensive behaviour erupts. I was never chased out of any bee yard, but I would speed up my chores or skip some hives if the bees were getting out of hand, then come back another day. I was neither an especially good nor fast beekeeper.

I understand why a beekeeper has outyards. Sometimes you move hives for pollination. Sometimes to improve wintering. Sometimes to catch other flows. Sometimes to make life easier in the bee yard – smaller apiaries make happier bees and happier beekeepers. But what does it cost to keep extra bee yards going? If you have three hives, should you have three apiaries? I think not.

We occasionally meet beekeepers with ten hives and six bee yards or something like that. Perhaps a single extra yard can be justified for small holders – it might be needed for splits or queen rearing, though even that can be managed in one spot with appropriate techniques.

Concerns hobby beekeepers should have include these issues:

  • Convenience: You will look at your backyard hives more frequently than those kept anywhere that requires a hop in a vehicle and a supply checklist (smoker, veil, feed, equipment, swarm box, super).
  • Time. You might be adding an extra hour to your beekeeping for each out yard, especially if you have to drive home to get something you forgot (or didn’t expect to need).
  • Accessibility. You may find an area where you’d like to set a hive or two. You may find a willing landowner in that area. Unfortunately, the only place they’ll let you set the hive is on the far side of a deep muddy ditch. In the enthusiasm of the moment, you may agree, forgetting that you’ll need to carry heavy, filled honey boxes a hundred steps back to your vehicle. Also, are there days of the week or hours of the day that the landowner doesn’t want you to enter their property?
  • Safety (1). Who is at the out yard to help livestock or people who get tangled up in your hive?
  • Safety (2). Fires, bears, and under-aged drivers in over-sized pickup trucks may find remote hives interesting. Or a strong blast of cold wind might take off lids, leaving your property exposed for days.
  • Insurance. Does your liability insurance cover out yards? Do you pay extra insurance for each spot?
  • Rent. What do you give the landowner? Cash or honey? Each have a cost.
  • Vehicle expenses. A yard ten miles away costs about $5.00 for each round trip in fuel alone. Add in wear, tear, tires, and depreciation, and you might as well figure ten dollars for that trip.

In rare situations, an away yard may do better than the home yard, but if forage and climate are equal, it won’t. Too often, you’ll reach the spot, discover that it would be smart to add one more super, but you won’t have time to drive back to your garage and get it that day – so you lose some honey and maybe a swarm. Adding vehicle costs, liability insurance, and landowner’s rent, the apiary may cost you $250 a year. That’s OK if you have twenty hives in the spot. Not OK if you have one or two.

We all put a lot of thought into having an out apiary, especially if we have just a few colonies. At this time of year, people may be begging you for a hive. If you are nice, you will load up a box of bees, drive over to their ditch, haul the hive in, make a dozen trips over the year to tend the bees, and then give the landowner jars of honey. But if you are smart and less nice, maybe you won’t.

My own backyard hives, 2021. Twenty steps from the deck. No driving. No gasoline.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ron has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with the blog at badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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10 Responses to What does that extra apiary cost you?

  1. Pingback: What does that extra apiary cost you? - One-Bee-Store

  2. The Apiarist says:

    Hi Ron … thanks for the reminder 😦 For the last three years I’ve kept bees on both sides of Scotland, 150 miles apart. Some are for work and some are for ‘play’. I drive a very economical car (60 mpg) which makes it just about bearable. Your 167 cents/litre is about £0.61 in sterling. We are currently paying £1.67 per litre (= ~274 cents by my calculations).

    Is is worthwhile? Yes, but only because I minimise the number of trips I need to make, I plan them carefully (and keep lots of spares in both apiaries), I have enough hives in the remote apiary and I sell bees and honey. Anyone want to buy a queen for £500?

    Will I stop? Yes, as soon as I possibly can! It’s hard work and not environmentally friendly. I’m looking forward to just walking down the garden to inspect the hives. However, I will have an out apiary (only 5 miles away) for splits, nucs, or queen mating.

    Cheers
    David

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Miksha says:

    Thanks, David.
    I guess we can’t complain about our petrol costs here in Canada. I’ve spent a lot of time in central Europe where prices are similar to Scotland. Beekeepers there are as careful as you in planning their work and apiary routes. Canadian fuel is a bit higher than in the USA, but not too much. I think we have been spoilt by cheap energy for a long time.
    I would be torn about giving up that second outfit. My father told me to always keep a yard just for the scenery, regardless how poorly the bees do or how costly the location. And I have done that. I’m lucky that I now have a back yard pleasant enough to fit that criterion.
    Ron

    Like

  4. flamenco108 says:

    Thanks for the post, as usual.
    Just a notice: it’s always funny to read complains from another side of the pond on gas prices: 167 Canadian dollars per litre it’s ca. 135 USD. It is just 16 times cheaper than gas prices in Poland after the hot war begun…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      In Hungary, the government locked the price of gasoline when the war began and immediately most places stopped selling fuel because they lost money on every litre sold. The price freeze was an election ploy of course, but resulted in worse conditions.
      Anyway, I hope your situation changes and I especially hope that the war ends soon.

      Like

  5. Catherine Dempsey says:

    I always find food for thought in your posts. I think I fit into the rare instances for location, because I am very close to the Atlantic Ocean. However, my two hives produce enough honey for themselves and for our needs. They also have taken to surviving the rain drizzle and fog and wind of our Newfoundland island never-ending winter, and do a bang up job of pollinating the fruit trees and garden beds. I am at the small is beautiful stage of life, but I can see how much thought has to go into expanding to multiple hives in multiple locations. More equipment, more expense. And more work. And less sitting and watching them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Erik says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Ron. I keep < 10 hives in our yard, and have considered an out yard but my time just doesn’t seem to allow it right now. Good food for thought.

    One factor not on your list is the hive density in your area. I have a couple professional beekeepers near me so worry that competition for nectar increases as the year progresses, and would be curious to know how my bees would do in a less dense area. If you are in a city or other area with lots of bees and beekeepers, then this could be an important consideration

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Definitely an interesting thought. Should a hobby beekeeper move out of an area that has become crowded with commercial beekeepers? I think not, except in extreme cases (say, almond pollination in California). There is always a risk of pests from other nearby bees, but I wouldn’t move because of possible concerns that floral conditions were being reduced by the commercial bees.

      Here’s why: Your area must be good if commercial people are setting in their hives. You usually can’t overstock a good area. If you find a place that commercial beekeepers are avoiding, there is probably a good reason that you would be the only beekeeper there.

      By the way, I continue to enjoy your blog: https://beeswitheeb.com I see that your dandelion and quince are coming in already – nice pictures!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        Definitely not planning to move, as we are fairly rural and enjoy the area. Someday we might and I’ll be interested to see how bees do in another area. Thanks.

        Like

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