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Placing beehives under natural shade under a fruit tree

Beekeepers are like landlords with very flexible lease agreements.

The bees only pay rent when they can afford it. They can leave if you harass them. They can leave because you take too much rent. They can because they don’t like the neighbours. They can leave because they don’t like the view from the entrance. They will leave if they don’t feel safe. They can leave without notice and they don’t need to explain themselves.

As a beekeeper, you can’t control all the variables. But there’s good news. Bees can be quite adaptable.

 If you get most of what they want right, they’ll put up with the factors that are beyond your control.

Here are a few tips to help you simulate a natural haven for your bees while making things a little easier for you.

Keep them safe from Predators

Do a little homework. What animals in your area are interested in the bees or their products? (Other than you of course)

For instance, I have bees in Lari, Kiambu. It’s a cold place that has no snakes and scorpions. Therefore, I don’t expect to have honey badgers lurking around the area. The main external threat is ants. That means that I have to make a moat under the hive to prevent the ants from accessing the hive. Here’s an example below. You can fill that space with used car oil or even soapy water. Soap helps to break the surface tension of the water which causes small insects to drown.

Moat under hive keeps ants away
fill the moat with oil or soapy water to keep Safari ants out of the hive

If you have bigger predators to worry about, like honey badgers, the hives will have to be at least 18 inches off the ground.

Keep the area around the hive clear of tall weeds and bushes to prevent little critters from using them as a bridge to the hive. If you have suspended your hives, smear grease or sticky sap to trap unwanted insects.

Keep your bees accessible

This is about your ability to access the hive as the beekeeper.

Honey is very heavy. Manoeuvring equipment and honey during a harvest can be very difficult if your hives are inaccessible. I understand that you’re worried about stinging incidences. There are ways to work around this as you will see below.

On average, you can harvest about 7 kilos of honey from a Langstroth hive. That honey is stored in a super usually made of wood. If you have 10 hives, you could be carrying more than 100 Kg out of the apiary come harvest time. Even with help, that can be difficult. Take some time to consider your logistics.

Keep your bees from getting too hot

When bees are left to their own devices, where do they choose to build a nest? We’ve seen bees build nests in trees, ceilings and chimneys. I’ve had a colony set up roots in an old iron pipe that was 4 inches wide. It was nestled at the bottom of a fence. What do all these places have in common?

They remain cool when it’s hot, and stay warm when it’s cold. Why is that important?

Bees are more active when they are warm. When it’s too cold, they stay indoors and expend energy keeping the brood warm. If it’s too hot, they spend their time cooling the hive. With that in mind, morning sun would help warm up the hive and get them going. Afternoon sun, especially in low land areas would slow them down. In the highlands however, you would be more worried about keeping them warm.

A natural shade from a tree would be ideal. That way, you avoid the hot afternoon sun but the hive can be warmed up in the morning. If a natural shade is not available, you can choose to provide one, depending on where you are geographically. If you live in the highlands, have the hive out in the open with no shade at all. I have done this in a tea growing area which is cool most of the year. The bees seem happy enough and are very productive.

If you are situated in a warmer area, then a shed would be helpful. If you can have one with a thatched roof, that would regulate the temperature very well. The moral of the story, where possible, provide natural shade. If not possible, don’t panic, the bees will probably adapt.

Keep them from getting chilled by the wind

Another thing that all wild nests have in common is that they are often protected from the wind.

Be it a ceiling, or a tree, the bees require a wind breaker to ensure that they are not chilled by the wind. On a tree, they will have their brood in the middle surrounded by comb for additional protection.

What really matters is that the entrance of the hive faces away from the wind.  If you live in a particularly windy place, you may need to strap the hive to the stand. If there are natural wind breakers like trees than you have less to worry about.

Keep them away from your neighbours

Your neighbours are not always people

The reason bees have such a bad reputation is because they are not shy about protecting their nests. Contrary to popular belief, bees don’t just go around stinging people. If they did, it would be very wasteful because they don’t survive the experience.

The risk has to be equal to or less than the potential benefit. It makes no sense for them to sting you unless they perceive you as a threat. When bees attack, it is because they feel that the nest is under attack.

Sometimes this provocation is unintended. The bees don’t have the time, or the language to find out what your true intentions are. It doesn’t matter that whether you know where the hive is or not. Once the guard bees, guarding the entrance, see you, they immediately go into defence mode.

To avoid bee attacks, try and keep the hives away from paths, or frequently used paths. If you have a garden that is being tended to, face the entrance of the hive away from the area being tilled. If possible, put a fence around your apiary. The guard bees do not sense a threat if they can’t see it. Find a quiet corner, away from loud machinery or loud animals. Bees can get testy when there’s too much noise.

Keep your bees from dehydration

Bees need water for their bodies and as a component of air conditioning. When the hive is too hot, they bring water back to the hive and then evaporate it with their wings. This action cools the hive. For those who didn’t think physics was important, the bees are proving you wrong.

If you have a natural source of fresh water, in form of a stream, river or even a marsh, then nature will take care of that for you.

 If you have a temporary river, then you may want to supplement their water supply during the dry months. The further away they have to go to get water, the more time they spend in transit which is time they are not using to forage.

Bees are happy to drink from muddy puddles and still water so you won’t need to change the water often if you have a large container. Remember to provide some “foot-bridges” to keep them from drowning. If you have a wide pan, have some stones in there, like kokoto that will give the bees a place to stand when they are drinking. If it is a deep container, throw in some small twigs that will keep the bees afloat.

Keep the bees from getting wet

The bees may drink stagnant water, but they don’t want to live in it.

Avoid having your hive at the bottom of a slope, especially in places that water collects. Heavy humidity is very uncomfortable for the bees. If that wasn’t enough, low lying marshy areas are prone to flooding.

Don’t wait for disaster to strike. Moving a fully established hive away from a flood prone area may literally break your back.

You also need to ensure that the rain stays out. When setting up the hive, ensure that the side with the entrance is angled slightly downward. That way, the rain slides off the cover away from the entrance, keeping the interior dry.

Bees want what you want

They work best when they feel safe, stay dry, warm but not hot, cool but not chilled. Like us, they will adapt to a somewhat difficult situation, but they will have a breaking point.

I once had a hive that fell off its stand. It left the bees within exposed to the elements, but guess what? They stayed put. I found them days later and was able to set them up on a more stable stand. The thing that worked in my favor is that they had had time to fully establish themselves, so when things went wrong, they were too invested to leave.

If you choose well, your bees will be able to focus on production. Once they get fully settled, it takes a lot for them to leave.

Do you have any questions or comments? Please let us know and we will be happy to shed some light and help you where we can.

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