When it comes to beekeeping, two is better than one. Or is it? Does it ever make sense to have only one colony?
Attend any bee club meeting or read any honey bee books, and you’ll come across the recommendation to start with at least 2 hives. There are solid reasons for this advice! Two hives allow you to compare performance, they give you more practice, and they are insurance policies for each other. If one hive begins to fail, the other hive can often be used to save it. But is there any reason to start out with just one hive?
That’s what we did! Everything in me wanted to start with 3 hives, but we started out with one lonely hive. Like all good plans – they are subject to change. We had sourced nucleus colonies from 3 different local beekeepers, planted a zillion flowers, and bought all our equipment (For a good beginner’s guide on what you really need to buy – check here.)Then we attended one of the University of Minnesota’s bee conferences. We met all the bee experts and heard their presentations. We even had a chance to sit down with Marla Spivek herself to discuss our beekeeping plans. After showing her our plans, she said this, “you have a great amount of plant diversity so your bees should have really good health…..but they’ll probably starve to death.”
Talk about a kick to the stomach. But she wasn’t kidding. It turns out – some flowers are more important than others for honey production and our environment just didn’t have the right stuff.
Our farm is located in the sand plains of Minnesota. Sand plains are frozen in the winter. Then they are dry, windy and hot. Plants have a tough time here! It’s no joke when we get something to survive – it means it’s a hardy plant! We sell seeds from some of our hardiest plants and are always adding more. Many of our trees sell out fast, so check out our store if you need tough plants.
Honey bees fly within 5 miles of the hive. 5 miles is bare survival. 2 miles is more appropriate if they are going to be able to store any honey. And remember – stored honey is essential to surviving the winter – especially a Minnesota winter!
Looking at a 2 mile map (and comparing with the county soil maps) it appears our bees have access to land that looks much like our farm. We’ve walked this area to take a closer look. There are a few small orchards – Yay! There are a lot of farm tracts that do the soybean/corn/potato circuit. There are considerable wetlands and a small river. Lots of Pine, Oak, Poplar forest. Most lawns/yards are non existent scrub lands. Fallow lands do not revert to native prairie on their own in this area. They become scrubby low grass lands filled with poison ivy and small siberian elms. There just isn’t enough water in the soil for lush landscapes. This is a harsh canvas for bees, humans, and wildlife.
And yet we press on! We recommend you upload a google Earth map of your area to see what is really out there for your bees. If you’re lucky, there’s a cornucopia of flowering trees, shrubs, gardens, and flowers.
If you’re not so lucky, then start out with one bee colony and take it slowly.
Can you plant enough flowers on your own? Yes – if you plant a lot of trees. Plant willows, alders, hazelnuts, maples, and poplars for early spring. Fruit trees, tulip poplars, amur maackias, redbuds for mid spring. Plant lindens, locusts, ornamental shrubs, hackberry, nannyberries, dogwoods, berry bushes, elderberries, sunflowers, sumac, mints, herbs and gardens for the summer. Asters, goldenrods, and new jersey tea shrubs for the fall. Do this anyway. It’s good for all pollinators and good for your soul.
But if you want a big honey crop – you need acres of these quality plants. Or you need acres of clovers (sweet clover, white clover, crimson clover,) canola, or alfalfa.
Chances are, you live in a great habitat. But be mindful if you don’t. There is no shame in starting small. We did. Our bees made it just fine and we found out there’s always more for us to learn. We expanded the next year and are keeping a happy compromise at a smaller number of hives than originally planned. Some day, when we work out an irrigation plan – we will have a whole boulevard full of American Linden and a fully stocked orchard. Then we will consider expanding the apiary. But even then – it’s important to pay attention to what your bees are bringing in. Can they gather enough pollen and nectar on their own? If not, it’s okay to scale back.
Just things to think about. Please add your thoughts in the comments.