A common refrain among beekeepers is “all beekeeping is local” along with the notion that “ask ten beekeepers a question and you’ll get ten or more different answers.” Those are closely related ideas in that many hive management questions a beekeeper must answer throughout the beekeeping season are critically dependent on the location of the honey bees under their care. I’ll overlook the other reasons why you’ll get ten different answers, which have less to do with beekeeping and more to do with human nature. Following is a brief outline of the potential influence of location on your beekeeping experience and the health of your honey bees that will equip you with a framework for incorporating location into your hive management decision making process.
Hive location literally defines the beekeeping experience for the beekeeper and the honey bees. By location I mean the geographic spot on the planet where a colony resides, and this location is best indicated digitally by GPS coordinates though we tend to think of location in terms of geopolitical markers like an address. It is no surprise that a beekeeper’s understanding of location is central to keeping healthy bees since the negative pressures on honey bee health are the four P’s, Poor forage and nutrition, Parasites, Pathogens, and Pesticides, all of which have connections to the location of a hive. A colony of honey bees is physically limited to a certain foraging radius around their hive, and while the accessible foraging area for a specific hive varies as well as where the bees actually forage (that is worthy of a blog post all by itself), a two to three mile (3-5km) radius is a good place to start. Publicly available satellite images through services like Google maps give a beekeeper a “bees eye” view of the land use and forage availability around an apiary. You should take a look sometime if you haven’t, you will learn something about where your honey bees are spending their time, usually having the potential to forage much further away than you might think.
The quality of life of a honey bee colony is totally dependent on what happens within the foraging radius of the colony. A good beekeeper will be aware of what blooms and when within the foraging area, will know if there are environmental hazards like pesticides in the area, and will observe how weather events impact the area (i.e., a localized hail or wind storm can decimate a good nectar flow). As the beekeeper, it is your responsibility to take management actions in response to the changing conditions in the forage area - adding supers to give space, splitting, requeening, harvesting honey, feeding, treating, reducing entrances, winterizing, and even moving a colony to a new location.
A hive location determines:
Forage availability - when, how much, and how long?
Weather conditions (see previous blog)
Seasonal influences - dry/wet/cold/hot, extreme weather events like hurricanes
Environmental risks - agriculture/urban pesticides, neighboring honey bee colonies
Timing of management actions, what actions are possible, what actions are necessary
The need to feed carbohydrates and/or proteins
Significant localized variance in needs - a small variance in location can yield big differences - altitude differences, weather/rainfall/extreme events like hail, wind, hurricane, differences in agriculture areas (i.e., a canola field just a few miles down the road is just out of reach of your bees), even sun exposure within the same yard area matters
In addition to the effects of location on colony health, the variety of honey produced by your hives is solely determined by the location of your honey bee colony. A combination of colony strength, weather conditions, forage availability, and hive space management determine the type and amount of honey your bees will make. The nectar producing flowers blooming in an area at any point in time creates a collective “pool” of nectar sources available to hives in the area. So knowing that a hive is located in a particular location at a specific time is the key factor in determining what honey is produced by a colony during any given window of time, and this is how producers of varietal honeys like sourwood know what is produced. The honey produced by your bees has a unique identity, distinct from anyone else’s bees on the planet, that is determined by the location of your colony and the time frame of honey production. And while a lab test might be helpful as a confirmation or to screen out undesirable elements, the strongest evidence for honey identity is hive location, date of production, and beekeeping practices.
The final impact of location on your beekeeping has nothing to do with your bees and everything to do with people, your beekeeping neighbors and friends. No matter your location, rural, urban, or city, there are normally a number of beekeepers in your vicinity who are facing similar circumstances and answering the same questions that you are facing. No matter your location across the globe, there is a sense of community embedded in the beekeeping culture that results in periodic gatherings and ongoing communications (especially digital through social media and online platforms) as friends, individuals, clubs, and local, regional, national, and global organizations (Apimondia) to share experiences, knowledge, and camaraderie. Beekeepers love to talk about bees with each other, discussing current problems, continuing their learning, and sharing failures and successes. This is a valuable element of beekeeping. At HiveTracks, we have coined the term “Community Intelligence” to describe the value of this element of the beekeeping culture, and our new app will include features to amplify this value as our online HiveTracks community grows.
Now you are equipped with a better understanding of how your location is intimately connected with your beekeeping experience and how to leverage that understanding to be a better beekeeper. In this line of thinking, HiveTracks upcoming new Beekeeping Companion app uses your location to provide you with the proper context for making good decisions. And you may still ask a question of ten beekeepers (or a 100 on Facebook) and get ten or more answers, but you will have a much better chance of sorting out the answers!