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Moving hives two feet
If you want to move a hive two feet, just stack the boxes off onto some kind of board (top, bottom etc.) and restack on the new location. Stacking them off and then restacking is so they are in the right order.
Moving hives two miles
If you want to move a hive two miles or more, you need to anchor the hive together for the trip and you need to load it. Since I am usually doing this by myself I will give instructions from that view.
I do this when the bees are flying. First I put my transportation as close as I can get to the hive. Directly behind it is best. I have a small trailer I often use, but a pickup would work too. I put a bottom board in the trailer where I think I want the hive to be. I put a strap under it so I can strap the hive together. You can buy small ones at the hardware store but they also sell them at bee supply places. I stack the boxes on the bottom board as I take them off. This leaves the hive in reverse order which will get reversed back when we unload. After all the boxes are on you need to nail all of the boxes together somehow. They sell 2" wide staples that can be used, or you can cut small (2 ½") squares of plywood and nail it between the parts of the hive to attach it all together. Cut a piece of #8 hardware cloth the length of the entrance and fold it into a 90 degree. It should fit tight enough to keep the bees in. Leave the entrance open until you are ready to leave.
Strap it together tightly and tie it anyway you need to or wedge it with empty bee boxes so that the hive can't shift or tip over on a curve or a sudden stop.
Next, you need to take into account your situation. If you have other hives at this location and the hive you are moving could lose a few foragers without hurting it much, just close it up and go. The returning foragers will find another hive. If this is your only hive or you are really concerned about losing foragers, then wait for dark and then close it up and go.
When you get to the new location, if it's already daylight, just unload the hive by putting a bottom board on the new location, removing the staples or plywood and stacking the boxes off onto it. If it's dark, wait for daylight and do the same thing.
Put a branch in front of the entrance so any bee leaving notices it. A green sapling with some leaves is nice so they have to fly through the middle of it. It causes them to stop and pay attention and reorient. This is useful at any distance of moving.
Other variations on this are a board (as mentioned in Dadant's the Hive and the Honey Bee) or grass plugging the entrance as mentioned many places.
"Bees moved less than a mile are likely to return in considerable numbers to their old location. This can be minimized by throwing grass or straw over their entrances to force them to take note of the change when they emerge for the first time from the hive at its new location" --The How-To-Do-It book of Beekeeping, Richard Taylor
Moving beehives more than 2 feet and less than 2 miles
This is a subject apparently full of controversy. There is an old saying that you move a hive 2 feet or two miles. I often need to move them 100 yards more or less. I've never seen that it was a problem. I move hives as seldom as I need to because anytime you move a hive even two feet, it disrupts the hive for a day. But if I need to, I move them. I didn't invent all of the concepts here, but some of them I refined for my uses. Here is my technique.
It occurs to me that a lot of detail that is intuitively obvious to me may not be to a newbie. So here is a detailed description of how I usually move hives single handedly. This is assuming the hive is too heavy to move in one piece or I lack the help to do so. But it works so well, I don't even think about using other methods. But if you have help and can lift it, you can block the entrance and move it all at once at night and put a branch in front. I know every time I tell any version of this method, someone quotes the "2 feet or 2 miles" rule and says you can't do it and you can only move them two feet or you'll lose all your bees. I've done this many times with no noticeable loss of workforce and no bees clustering at the old location by the next night.
Moving hives 100 yards or less by yourself.
When bees fly out of the hive, normally, they pay no attention to where they are. They know where they live and don’t even consider it. When they fly back they look for familiar landmarks and follow them home. They orient when they first leave the hive but only certain conditions cause them to reorient after that. One is confinement. Any confinement will cause some. 72 hours causes about the maximum reorientation. After that it’s difficult to tell the difference. A blockage of the exit causes reorientation. People sometime stuff the entrance with grass. This combines the act of removing it, which sets off reorientation, with some confinement, which causes some reorientation. An obvious obstruction that causes them to deviate from their normal exit will set off reorientation. A branch or a board in front of the entrance that causes them to have to fly around it, will cause them to pay attention to where they are
When a bee is returning to the hive they tend to be on “autopilot”. It’s like you driving home from work. You don’t think about where the turns are, you just make them. If they have done no reorientation, they will see landmarks and return to the old hive and have no idea where to go. If they have reoriented, they will still fly back to the old location, but when they see the hive isn’t there, they think back to when they left and remember
Finding the new hive
Assuming they did not reorient and they have to figure out where the new hive is, then they have to do increasing spirals out until they smell the hive. Odds are they will move into the first hive they find doing this. How long it takes to find the new location is exponential to the distance. In other words if it’s twice as far away it will take them four times as long to find it.
Keep in mind that cold weather can complicate things in odd contradictory ways. On the one hand if they have been confined for 72 hours and you move them, they are most likely to reorient. On the other hand if they fly back to the old location they have to find the hive again before they get too chilled or they will die.
Leaving a box
Leaving a box at the old location is another of those complicated things. If you leave one from the start they all return and just stay there. If you leave nothing at the old location they will look for the new location, but some may get stuck at the old location. If you wait until just before dark to put a box there you will motivate them to find the new location, but still give them somewhere to go. You can move that to the new location, and in warm weather, just set it beside the hive. In cold weather you may need to put this box on top, but that’s not a pleasant thing to do in the dark.
Second bottom board. If you don't have one, some board big enough to set the hives on will do.
Third bottom board. A cover cloth is useful but not necessary. If you don't have one, some board big enough to set the hives on will do.
Second lid. If you don't have one, any board big enough to put on top of the hive will work.
Gloves (optional but nice)
Bee Suit (optional but nice)
An old branch that will stick up nicely and disrupt the flight of the bees leaving the hive.
Suit up to your comfort level. Remember we will not be manipulating frames so the gloves are not a big disadvantage.
I usually put a puff of smoke in the entrance, then pull off the lid and put a puff in the inner cover (unless you don't have an inner cover).
Then I put four or five good strong puffs of smoke in the entrance and wait a minute. Then repeat four or five puffs and wait a minute. I do this until I see just a whiff of smoke out the top. This is more smoke than I usually use, but we will be rearranging this hive twice and I need it calm all the way through. If they are getting irate or you are moving an exceptionally strong and large hive and it is taking some time, feel free to smoke some more from time to time.
Wait about three minutes before opening the hive.
Set the second bottom board next to the hive. Take the top box off, lid and all and put it on the bottom board. Remove the lid and move each box from the old location to the new bottom board until you reach the last box. You don't need to restack the last one because we are moving it first. You now have reversed the order of the boxes so when we move them to the new location they will be in the correct order.
Put the second lid on the stack of boxes to keep the bees calm and the lid on the last brood box so they won't fly in your face. Carry the last brood box, with the lid and bottom board to the new location.
Put the branch in front of the entrance so that the bees have to fly through the branch. It doesn't have to be so thick they have trouble getting through it, just enough that they can't miss seeing it. This is to cause them to reorient when they leave. If you watch them they will start by circling the hive, then make larger circles until they have placed the hive in their mental map of their world. Since you have moved the hive to a new place and that place is within their known world they do this fairly quickly.
Remove the lid, if you want to use a cloth cover, put it on the brood box. It will help keep the bees calm, but you have to get it off with a box in your hands when you come back. That is why I like a cloth instead of a cover. Take the lid back to the old location. Take the top box and lid off and put in on the third bottom board. Put the lid you that you brought back on the stack of boxes. Again this is so there is always a lid on the stack of boxes and a lid on the box you are moving. This helps keep the bees calm. You may be thinking, that the bottom is exposed while you're carrying it. Yes, but the bees don't move down when they are getting jostled, they move up. Not that I'd wear shorts while moving the boxes.
Carry the second box over to the new location and catch the cloth (if you used one) with one finger while still holding the box and lift the cloth off and set the box down. Remove the lid and replace it with the cloth.
Go back to the old location with the lid and repeat until all of the boxes but one are at the new location. When you do the next to the last box, leave the lid on it at the new location.
When you get to the last box, leave it at the old location. Leave the inner cover on, put on the second lid. If you didn't have a real bottom board, then put a stick between the box and the board you have it on to leave room for the bees to get in.
After dark, block the entrance, or pull out the stick and carry it to the new location with the bottom in place. Just set it beside the hive with the branches in front of its entrance. Open the entrance or replace the stick. Do not try to put this box on the hive in the dark! If you have never opened a hive in the dark, consider yourself wise or fortunate and don't. The bees can be very defensive after dark and will attack and cling and crawl on you looking for a way to sting.
The next morning you can put the last box on top of the hive. Remove any equipment from the old site so they don't start clustering there.
Some field bees will return to the old location. Most will not. The ones that do will circle until they find the new location and then will be fine after that.
You can check in the evening before dark and see if any are clustering at the old location. If so, put a super there and they will move into it and you can move them after dark again. I have never had any clustered there by the next day and seldom had any at all.
Copyright 2006 by Michael Bush