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.
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.