Last Updated on January 16, 2022
How many bee hives per acre? I get this question a lot. Along with “how much honey per hive”. There is not a really straight quick answer to either question, but we can look at a lot of factors and get an idea. Google maps is also helpful. Let us have a look at how we work out our carrying capacity.
First, let us have a look at some bee geography facts.
How Far Can A Bee Forage?
There is no real accurate answer to this question, as this varies from race to race. It is generally accepted that the range of a bee is about 3.5-4 miles from the hive. I personally think this number may be a bit higher for African bees as I once kept an apiary on a very remote site, and there was a Eucalyptus tree plantation 6 miles as the crow flies from the hives. When these trees were flowering, the bees made, rather ironically, a beeline straight for these trees. You could literally see the line of bees flying to the Eucalyptus trees on the horizon.
Learn more about: When Do Bees Go Away?
How Far Can A Bee Fly-In Its Life?
A honeybee is just like a vehicle – it carries things from point A to B, and in so doing will incur wear and tear. The further a bee flies to the flowers and back, the fewer loads it can carry. Ideally for a bee, the best is if it can hop out of the hive – fly 50 yards, collect nectar, and return. This way the bees can perform thousands of flights in their short life. This also influences how many beehives per acre. We do not want to force them to fly too far.
What Determines How Many Hives Per Acre?
Bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers. This is used to maintain the hive and produce more bees, wax, and stores of honey. Bees, much like us, thrive on a varied diet. This is especially the case for pollen – the more types of pollen they can collect, the happier and healthier the hive will be. How many bee hives per acre we stock influences the amount of pollen available.
Nectar is a resource, and bees collect this from flowers. The number of bees divided by the number of flowers is essentially your carrying capacity. There is no real way to work this out yet today. Flowers also vary seasonally and depending on climate. I have had bees in the same apiary produce entirely different tasting honey at the same month in consecutive years based on what flowered.
We also find that apiaries become acclimatized to an area. I have noticed with hives where I allow the queens to mate and requeen without interference that the bees seem to become adapted to an area. The honey yield increases in the same site year on year as the bees adapt. There is also probably an effect where strong hives populate drone congregations areas and this yields better and better hives each year. In this regard, I have noticed that as an apiary adapts to an area, the number of hives can be increased.
Google Maps Survey
My first trick is always to do a Google maps survey of the site. That satellite view helps you see if there are hidden flower resources in the area. I once had an apiary site that was in a bland grassy field. However, a half a mile away, in a hidden valley, there was an old abandoned citrus orchard consisting of about twenty acres of trees. These unmanaged trees flowered like crazy for about three months a year, as they were Eureka lemons. The Google Maps survey revealed this nectar source. A cursory look at the apiary site however would have caused me to not stock the site.
If you go to Google Maps, find your potential apiary site, and then use the ruler function to measure off a circle 3 miles around the site. Have a look at this for fields, forests, meadows, towns, etc. Towns are a great source of nectar as there are usually a lot of species of flowering plants in towns. These provide pollen of varied diet, which helps hives resist disease. It has been shown that bees with a polyfloral pollen diet are more resistant to Nosema ceranae for example.
Beware of landfill sites – I try to keep apiaries away from these. Bees will collect leftover cooldrink and soda from landfill sites. They will also clean out old bottles of honey, which can contain spores of diseases. I once knew a beekeeper who used to take his hives to landfill sites near LA just before spring to feed them up on “free sugar”. This is just a bit gross actually.
How Many Hives Per Acre?
When you have strong natural honey flows such as clover, goldenrod, dandelion, various forests, and the like, you will easily be able to stock your hives at quite high densities. If we look at the foraging range of a hive, it means a hive covers an area of approximately 4500 acres. Generally, the rule of thumb is a density of 1 – 3 hives per acre for pollination, hence an apiary site can hold a lot of bees.
Law Of Diminishing Returns
We find that as with any extractive process, beekeeping experiences the law of diminishing returns. You will find that as you increase the number of hives in an apiary, you reach a ceiling after which the productivity per hive begins to decline. You will also notice that if you have too many honeybee hives on a site that they can start robbing each other during dry spells. High numbers of bees can also attract pests such as yellow jackets, bears, and human thieves.
The Law Of Diminishing Returns Gets Broken
When we heavily stock an apiary we ensure that all flowering plants in the area are hyper-pollinated. This means that they produce more seeds. If this is a wildflower meadow, we will consequently shift the balance of the meadow from grasses (which are wind-pollinated) to nectar flowers (which are bee-pollinated).
I have seen in apiaries over the years that we will tend to find that the bees select for plants that benefit them, and over time, the carrying capacity and nectar density of an area increases. This means that we actually break the law of diminishing returns as the bee carrying capacity increases. In this regard, you often find that you may have an apiary where the maximum number of hives you can keep is about 50, and then after three years, you find you can increase this to 80 or even 100 hives.
There is no real rule as to how many bees per acre – although suggestions are 1-3 hives for pollination. For honey production, it is really just a case of stocking your apiary until you get a drop in production. You then ease back for a few years and then increase numbers as your ecosystem adapts to the presence of the bees.
Google Maps can help you get a good aerial view of your area as can a drone (the one that you fly, not the male honeybee).
We hope this article has helped you understand how to work out the maximum beehives per acre – and see that this is a very flexible number that you can change to your benefit. Keep bees to keep more bees. Win-win situation. Share if you enjoyed it. Let us get that bee-carrying capacity up all over our world and make the ecosystem strong.
Dr. Garth A. Cambray is a Canadian/South African entrepreneur and beekeeper with 28 years of experience in apiculture and specializes in adding value to honey. His Ph.D. research developed a new advanced continuous fermentation method for making mead that has resulted in a number of companies globally being able to access markets for mead. His company, Makana Meadery, exports honey mead to the USA where it is available to discerning connoisseurs. He has also developed technologies to commercially manufacture organic honey vinegar in Zambia for export globally. He holds a few patents globally in the ethanol industry and believes in technology and knowledge transfer for human development and environmental sustainability. One of his proudest achievements is the fact that the wind farm he started at one of his old apiary sites has essentially made his hometown carbon neutral.