Build a Better Beeyard

By: Tom and Fran Davidson

We began beekeeping seven years ago and have evolved from two colonies of bees to a successful sideline business with 37 hives. For the past four years our bees achieved a better than 90% overwintering survival rate in Southwest Ohio. Part of our success can be attributed to lessons learned as we expanded our bee yard. This article is meant to share commonly understood principles of beeyard design and offer a few innovations that might improve your beekeeping success.

Site selection:

Before installing our apiary we checked property covenants and government regulations (State, county, township) for applicable restrictions. We fortunately live in a rural area, zoned for agricultural use on six acres. The State of Ohio has code requirements governing our apiary operation. Most cities will issue additional ordnances preventing or limiting the number of hives, location, distances from property lines and requirements to erect barriers to force bees to fly over human traffic. Check and comply before building.

We chose a site for maximum sun and faced entrances southeast. 

We provided a Winter  windbreak on the East, North and West sides of the Apiary. Plants, fencing, straw bales, pallets,  plywood, buildings or a natural area will also work. We chose three panels of attractive fencing but removed the panel on the East side after poor hive performance the first two years from excess shade. We have better survival from hives enjoying full sun in the apiary. Consider use of attractive fencing to force bees to fly up over  neighbors property even if ordinances do not require a barrier.

We Installed hive stands on 4×4 cedar posts about 30 inches deep on pedestals 12-16 inches above the ground. Most posts were set with a 40lb bag of pre mix concrete in bottom of  the posthole. We should have gone below the frost line and set all posts in concrete because after years of use we have had to add supports to several hives as height and weight increased. Posts were spaced so we could work on either side and from the rear of hives. We allowed space for rear removal of white boards and to insert an oxalic acid vaporizer from the rear of the hive for mite treatment. We installed hangars on fencing as a handy place to hang frames if needed. We painted outside of hives with unique designs or colors to protect wood and possibly reduce drifting by returning bees. We used water based (latex) exterior paints and untreated lumber for box construction. We do not paint inside of boxes. We permanently named our hive pedestals but numbered our hives and nucs for ease of record keeping. We now keep our hive notes in a water resistant note book after losing months of record keeping from heavy dew/rain (Don’t leave overnight out in beeyard).

The most innovative improvement in our apiary is use of a modified inner cover in hives with an empty super on top to keep bees out of our face when feeding. The empty super prevents robbing and provides an air space buffer against rapid changes in temperature extremes in Summer and Winter. When needed; sugar syrup in quart mason jars are inserted into 3½ inch diameter circles cut in the inner cover. The jars (when inserted in the holes) just fit inside the empty medium super without need of shims. In Winter, sugar bricks or fondant in clear containers are placed over the  top of the holes for emergency feed. Installation of round plugs and a rectangular ventilation screen over unused holes prevents bees from entering the space inside the medium super above the inner cover. Safe and easy winter inspection of food status is accomplished by taking a quick peek under the telescoping cover without loss of much heat and zero disturbance to bees or beekeeper.   

Our hive bodies are all medium eight-frame supers with a modified inner cover. For ventilation we use a movable rectangular 1/8 screen cover over an inner cover hole which contains bees to lower boxes. In Winter we insert rigid insulation inside top of the telescoping cover for added insulation and to prevent  condensation dripping back down into the hive. We make a removable one inch rigid foam outer insulation  cover for extra Winter insulation. Two Insulation panels are glued and screwed into a V then two Vs are just screwed (not glued) to attach as a box around the hive. The Vs are then unscrewed and stored after Winter as space saving Vs for use again next Winter.   

We use a permanent marker to write the year frames were put in use on one end of each frame so it is readable. By placing removed frames back in hive boxes with printed year at the same end, less disruption of hive occurs. Stack boxes so the marked frames systematically faces to front or rear of hive (your choice). This habit helps insure boxes are returned to their original positions unless you have a reason to rearrange.

Additional considerations

It lessens back strain to use a low bench in the beeyard to set boxes on while working hives. For liability concerns we post warning signs that bees are present in our apiary and protection is required. Using screen bottom boards with removable white boards facilitates monitoring hive health especially mite loads. We find some commercial inner covers lack a notch for upper ventilation.  Adequate hive ventilation even in winter is important for hive survival. Cut a notch if necessary and don’t block ventilation when closing the telescoping cover.

We started with just two hives but expanded each year as we became addicted to the “Beekeeping Disease.” Allow space for possible growth when locating your beeyard. Consider Keeping apiary to 20 hives or less in a single yard based on available nutrition within the 2½ mile radius  your bees will forage. Keeping less than 20 hives was an enjoyable recreation for the two of us  but  a sideline business with 36 colonies requires serious man hours (work). We were fortunate to have room for an apiary in our backyard so easy access was obtainable. If we were to build an out apiary,  year round access to the hives would be a prime consideration and feeding syrup in quart jars would likely change to use of refillable gallon feeders of some design to reduce frequency of visits.

We hope some of our shared beeyard practices will benefit your beekeeping experience and improve the life of your bees.

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