You’ve decided that you need to move a hive- maybe to the other side of your yard, or maybe to a new site. While moving a hive can be a labor intensive, daunting process, a little bit of prep work and understanding can make the process much easier.
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Understanding Bee Navigation
In order to understand why moving a bee hive can be a complicated process, it is helpful to explore how honey bees navigate.
The Waggle Dance
We know that when a bee finds a nectar source she shares the location with her sisters by the waggle dance. But, have you ever wondered how bees actually find their way home while foraging?
While the waggle dance is worthy of its own post, here is my favorite video explaining the waggle dance navigation since we are talking about bee navigation in this post.
Honey bees navigate using their sight, smell, memory, the sun, measurable distances, and physical landmarks. Their primary navigation is called Specialized Route Memory, and their backup navigation is called General Landscape Memory.
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Specialized Route Memory (SRM)
Specialized Route Memory is egocentric navigation (egocentric means “self-centered”), in which the bee understands the distance to an object from her physical location in terms such as “left” and “right”. For example, she knows that from this flower she must fly forward (in relation to the sun) for 3oo feet in order to reach the hive. It does not matter if a new tree was planted, as she is not looking for visual clues- she knows exactly how far of a distance to fly before turning. This is also the information that a bee uses in her waggle dance.
General Landscape Memory (GLM)
General Landscape Memory is an allocentric spatial memory processing where the bee navigates based upon objects respect to one another, ie the location of a tree relative to the hive. This navigation process is like following breadcrumbs. Object A leads to Object B which leads to Object C and so on until she has returned to the hive. The distance between the objects is not important, only that one object does, in fact, lead to another and so forth. General Landscape Memory is the bees backup navigation.
When bees perform orientation flights when they leave the hive for the first time, they are gathering General Landscape Memory.
A Human Example
General Landscape Memory is knowing how to get yourself to the corner store, however, you wouldn’t be able to tell a stranger that asked for directions how to get there. You can get there by landscape clues- turn left at the blue house, right at the big tree, etc. But you don’t know how far down the road the blue house is, or the distance from the blue house to the big tree. If someone cut down the big tree, you would probably miss your turn.
Specialized Route Memory is like following your GPS- in 300 feet turn right on First Street. This is a specific, measurable direction that you could tell the lost stranger looking for the corner store. It doesn’t matter if someone cut down the big tree or painted the blue house, you know that you have to drive 300 feet before turning right.
The difference between Specialized Route Memory and General Landscape Memory can be confusing, so here is an image that explains the difference between SRM and GLM visually. Image that the “b” in both squares is the hive, and “a” is the bees starting point.
In Square A, there is a specific starting point (point a), and a definitive distance to travel where a specific turn must be made in order to reach the hive (b). If the starting point (a) were to move, the bee would not be able to reach the hive (b). This is an example of Specialized Route Memory.
In Square B, the starting point (a), distances and specific turns are irrelevant. The bee uses visual cues, such as the moon or hexagon, and can then find her way back to the hive. However, if the location of the hexagon landmark were to move, she would be unable to find her way to the hive. This is an example of General Landscape Memory.
Why does this matter?
So, why does understanding bee navigation even matter when it comes to moving a hive? This is because if we do not move a hive properly, the foragers will all return to the original location of the hive. Once there, these homeless bees can be quite unhappy (ie inclined to sting) and will ultimately die.
Read more on allocentric vs geocentric navigation here
Before Moving A Hive
Before moving a hive, you’ll need to do a little prep work. Make sure the new site is ready for the hives, you have evening access, brush is cleared, hive stands are level, etc.
First, make sure the entire hive is secure. I like to use a ratchet strap, making sure the bottom board, hive bodies, and lid are all tied down. I generally do this during the day when it is easier to see and work around the hive. Some folks opt to use 2″ staples.
The night before moving the hive, after all of the foragers have returned for the evening, close the hive. Block off all entrances and any other gaps where bees could escape. The easiest way is by stapling #8 hardware cloth over the entrance.
Be sure to have your smoker lit, and use it to keep bees inside the colony while closing the entrances. You don’t want to leave any foragers behind.
Ventilation is very important, especially in hot climates. Bees can easily become overheated and die. Use a screened bottom board if you can, along with a ventilated inner cover. On exceptionally hot days, if you are not concerned about inclement weather, you can use the ventilated inner cover or staple #8 hardware cloth over the top and leave the lid off until you reach the new location.
A few words of advice here- wear a suit! If you have not messed with your hives at night you’ll quickly learn that bees become very defensive once the sun goes down, and they will not be tolerant of you messing with their entrance- or of your flashlight.
The 2 foot or 2 mile Rule
Have you heard the saying- you can either move a hive two feet or two miles? While this isn’t true, you can move a hive however far you need to, moving a hive only a few feet or more than 2 miles is easiest on the bees.
Reflecting back on bee navigation helps to understand why. If a hive is moved two feet or less, their overall surroundings- trees, fences, houses, and other landmarks- don’t change. They can still use their established General Landscape Memory to get around. The only thing that has changed is the precise location of the hive. When a hive is moved only a few feet, the bees are able to locate it by smell.
Bees forage within a 2 miles radius of their hive. So they are very familiar with all of the landmarks within those two miles, landmarks they use to get back to the hive. Moving a hive more than 2 feet but within the two miles is the most challenging. If a bee were to return to the original hive location, she would not be able to smell the hive you moved a mile down the road. This can still be done though, more on this below.
Moving a hive more than 2 miles is a complete reset for the bees, and in my opinion, the easiest kind of move. Outside of their original two miles, the bees will not have any of the familiar landmarks used for navigation. When they leave the hive at the new location, they will learn their new surroundings and will not find their way to the original hive spot.
Moving a hive less than 2 feet
Moving a hive less than two feet is quite simple. In the evening when the foragers have gone in for the night, secure the hive and close the entrance (to protect yourself), and move it to the new location. You can then reopen the hive and go about things as usual, just make sure you don’t place a new hive in the original location for a few days. Some foragers may initially return to the original location, but they will soon realize the hive has moved and find the new location by smell.
Moving a hive more than 2 feet, but less than 2 miles
Moving a hive more than a few feet but within a 2 mile radius is the most challenging move.
Some beekeepers have reported success in moving the hive at night and encouraging reorientation. Unfortunately, it is likely that foragers will return to the original hive location.
Two other options exist that yield better results. First, you can move the hive a few feet at a time, with several days between each move. Alternatively, you can move the hive two miles away for at least 10 days, and then move the hive to the desired location.
Moving a hive more than 2 miles
Moving a hive more than two miles is easy. As before, secure the hive and close the entrance. Move the hive the night you closed the entrance or early the next day. Once at the new site, smoke the entrance and then remove the entrance cover. Take steps to encourage reorientation (below). It’s just **snap** that easy!
When moving a hive to a completely new location, I generally give the colony some syrup and possibly some pollen. It will take them a few days to reorient and find food sources, so giving them syrup offers a buffer to feed the colony while looking. Once they find a nectar source they won’t take any more syrup. If you did not offer syrup, they will consume their honey reserves. Be sure to give the syrup after the move is completed so you don’t spill syrup, which could incite robbing.
You are trying to close a hive entrance at night and found that the bees have bearded. What the heck should you do?
Well, you’ll want to get as many bees inside as possible. Any bees left outside may be left behind, or at least be bothersome to you as you move them (remember- bees become very defensive at night).
You may encourage the bees to return home by gently smoking them. Over smoking them may actually draw more bees out. I have had luck misting the beard with water in a spray bottle. Bees don’t especially enjoy being wet, so a light mist has them believing it is raining and they will likely return home.
Because bearding is a sign that bees are overheated, overpopulated or both, take extra steps to maximize ventilation while they are confined within the hive.
Once a hive has moved to a new location, the bees need to orient themselves to their new surroundings- update their mental map if you will. She may not realize that her location has changed upon leaving the hive, and could become lost. You can help prevent this by encouraging reorientation.
I like to loosely stuff the entrances with grass. Since the bees have to physically remove the grass in order to leave the hive, grass that was not there yesterday, they are immediately triggered that things are different. Once the grass is cleared out they will perform orientation flights before foraging. If you chose to do this, make sure you don’t stuff the entrances too tight. They will need to be able to clear the entrance for ventilation.
You could also place a board, leafy branch, pile of sticks or some other physical barrier in front of the entrance, so the bees are forced to crawl through/over it before leaving the hive. Basically, you want the entrance to be very different than it was before the move.
If you live in cooler climates, you could leave the entrance closed for up to 72 hours. This can be stressful for the bees and is not an option in hot temperatures. You could also move the hives in rainy weather, as the bees would not be flying as it’s similar to leaving the entrance closed.
Moving Bees In Winter
Be very careful if moving bees in the winter. Hives should be moved when daytime temperatures are over 50 degrees F. Below 50F, bees are clustered for warmth and moving the hive could cause the cluster to break apart. Bees knocked out of the cluster may not be able to return resulting in bee death. If the cluster is broken, the entire colony could perish.
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Sallmann, Ben. “The Basics of Moving Hives.” Bee Informed Partnership, 25 Apr. 2014, beeinformed.org/2013/11/12/the-basics-of-moving-hives/.