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Sun is for foraging, but bees love shade

Last Saturday I spent the day participating in a BioBlitz as a “bee specialist.” My friend Glen Buschmann from OlyPollinators roped me into this duty and it turned out to be fun. During a BioBlitz, groups of citizen scientists record all the species they can find in a specific area in a set amount of time. Guiding the groups are people with expertise in identifying plants, animals, birds, bees, fungi, and other creatures.

As we left the study area, I asked Glen if he would like to stop by my house and see my bees. I ended up leading him from hive to hive, most of which are separated by hilly terrain and wooded, overgrown paths. I almost skipped the last one because, seriously, once you’ve seen one hive you’ve seen them all, right? But we continued to trudge up the hill, noting various plants and animals along the way.

When we arrived at the uppermost hive stand, I freaked out. No longer occupied by just one colony, the shaded deep-in-the-trees hive stand was now occupied by two. Now that’s a blitz!

Disregard the ads and live where you want

So this is the thing I love about honey bees. I had strategically placed three bait hives and three swarm traps around my property. The swarm traps are up in trees, the bait hives on the ground. They all contain swarm lures. But did this swarm pick any of those? Of course not. Instead, it chose a brood box that was sitting on a hive stand waiting to be carried down the hill.

The brood box, perched on the cover of an empty hive, contained eight old frames and was topped off with an inner cover I had taken from the occupied hive. So that’s it: just a box and an inner cover. The bees were lustily coming and going through the hole in the top. Chances are I wouldn’t have noticed this colony for days, so I named it after Glen, who was the reason I discovered it. So Glen’s hive, it is.

Breaking all the rules

The most interesting thing is that the swarm broke every rule in the book, which is precisely why I keep telling people there is no book—at least not one humans can understand.

  • The books say that bees prefer sun, but this location is in dense shade for nearly the entire day. A huge big-leaf maple towers over it, and younger trees flank all sides.
  • The books say that a swarm won’t move in next door to another colony because bees like to space themselves away from competition. This one is within three feet of a large, well-established colony.
  • The books say a swarm prefers a location high off the ground, but this one is, at most, three feet up.
  • The books assume the entrance must be on the side, but these bees were happily coming and going from the top.

Setting up a permanent hive

Anyway, I did the human thing and installed them into beekeeper-friendly housing. I moved the brood box to the side for a moment (it was incredibly heavy) and gave them a screened bottom board and slatted rack, including a lower entrance. Then I moved the brood box back into place and added a super with an upper entrance.

Being impatient, I tried to do away with the top entrance in the late afternoon by placing a telescoping cover over the inner cover. But the bees were having none of that. Within a half hour, I couldn’t even see the telescoping cover under all the bees, yet no bees were investigating the new entrances.

I ended up removing the telescoping cover and letting them use the top entrance for the rest of the day. Early this morning, while everyone was still inside, I again closed off the upper entrance by adding the telescoping cover. We’ll see if that works.

Sun vs shade for honey bees

If you read about feral honey bees, you know they like shade. Feral bees frequently reside in trees at the edge of the forest, which gives them the benefit of sunny foraging nearby but protection from hot sun. People often insist that hives be placed in early sun or all-day sun, but that is for the benefit of the beekeeper, not the bees. Beekeepers like to maximize honey production by putting the bees to work early and keeping them busy all day.

Similar to the situation with large hives, I think we get confused about what we want versus what they want. Left to their own devices, honey bees maintain small colonies in the woods. Thinking back, when I was a kid hunting for colonies with my grandfather, we didn’t search open fields, we searched in the forest among the older deciduous trees.

Deciduous trees are ideal for bees. In spring they provide a ton of forage, either pollen, or nectar, or both. In the summer they protect the bees from the hot sun. And in the winter, the leaves fall away and let the sunlight warm the hive. Not only that, but the the older trees often provide the hollow cavities where honey bees like to nest.

Sometimes we need a reminder

Glen’s hive is a reminder to me that bees love shade. Although their choice of housing seems unexpected, when you think about it, it makes total sense. Like all animals, bees want to be comfortable and protected, but they define those things in their own way.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Bees love shade, so they chose this shady brood box to live in.
This is the brood box with inner cover that was awaiting storage. The hive underneath is empty and closed.
This is the back of the two hives.
This is the back of the two hives on the hive stand. The stand can hold three hives, but I rarely use it that way. The hive on the right contains an overwintered colony.
The swarm entered through the hole in the inner cover.
The new swarm was using the entrance in the inner cover.
Bees love shade and often chose to live in the woods.
This is the view from their front entrance: thick forest.
The final beekeeper-friendly hive.
I added a screened bottom board, slatted rack, and robbing screen on the bottom, and a queen excluder, honey super, and telescoping cover on top.

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Comments

Carol
Reply

Thank you for this! I was one of those who thought bees liked their house to be in the sun. But I have another question for you. It seems like your hives are unprotected from bears. Is that true? Or do you not have bears in your area. I have plenty of space to separate hives if I were to expand my numbers, but it would be difficult to protect multiple locations with electric fencing. Wondering how you deal with the issue.

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

I cannot answer your question. I live adjacent to a 92,000-acre state forest that is loaded with bear. All they have to do is skip across a narrow gravel road to get to my place. I’ve been at this location for over 20 years and so far (knock on a whole forest full of wood) no bear has visited. I have no bear fencing in place, and I haven’t yet decided what to do when they discover the gold mine. I just go day-by-day.

sharon
Reply

As a relatively new beekeep I often wonder about the wisdom being passed down through the ranks without any caveats…keeping bees in the sun is one of those ‘rules’. I live in the southern part of British Columbia, roughly 300 miles north west of Spokane, Washington. We are a semi-arid desert area (yes, Canada does have desert areas), but this desert is not the same as the desert in Arizona, New Mexico etc. And the sun in Vancouver BC (roughly 300 miles southwest of us) is not the sun of inland Texas. So keeping hives “in the sun” probably needs to be clarified….are we talking about morning sun, mid-day sun, afternoon sun; are daytime high temperatures of 110F or 70F, these are quite different. My 2 top bar hives are sheltered by overhanging boughs of spruce trees, with entrances facing the morning sun, but shaded from afternoon temperatures that can reach 100F. These same boughs protect from winter winds and snow with temperatures that can reach -40F. I often see hives out in the fields in blistering heat…the old saying “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun” holds true for these poor bees. And if the bees were mad dogs somebody would phone the local animal control about animal cruelty. Perhaps pronouncements of hives in the sun should have a disclaimer….”Depends on local conditions.”

Stormie
Reply

There is another reason to place a hive in full sun and I think it is a more valid reason. It is to help contain the small hive beetle and keep it from overtaking the hive. Here in Missouri SHB have been a real problem. Last year we kept hearing story after story how the SHB have taken down strong, thriving hives.

Rusty
Reply

Stormie,

I think that is overstated. If you read Bee-L you can see that most (I think, most) do not agree that the sun has anything to do with hive beetle control. Some think so, but there is certainly lots of disagreement. Some people think it’s more related to the type of soil beneath the hive where the beetles pupate. There is still a lot we don’t understand about them.

Anna
Reply

When people ask me about hive placement and then proceed to tell me about their sunny spots or lack thereof, I have to remind them that bees choose locations in forests. The beekeeper is thankfully free to place the beehive wherever she feels is most convenient to all of those humans that use the space. Aim the entrance into the trees if necessary to keep human heads out of the bees’ direct flight zone.

Sally Lord
Reply

You mention that you have swarm traps and bait hives. Could you explain the difference between the two?

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Sally,

A bait hive is just a regular hive that is baited with something bees like. It could be old comb, pheromone lure, lemongrass oil, or a combination. You can set up the hive where you want it and just leave it there after the swarm moves in.

A swarm trap is also baited, but it is a temporary structure not meant for long-term housing. It is often shaped like a flower pot or a small nuc. It can be made of fiberboard or cardboard or anything really. Once the swarm moves in, you remove the bees from the trap and put them in permanent housing.

IanMichaelTee
Reply

Perfect timing for me. Thanks. I am a first year keeper and my two hives are maybe 15 feet in from edge of bush beside a farmer’s field (with his permission). I won’t worry anymore about moving them to a sunnier location!

Vickie
Reply

Whaaaaatttttt? I thought bees liked to be sited in the sun! Well, that’s a new one for me. Of course, I’m a newbie at beekeeping, so I still have a lot to learn. Thanks for the info!

ARNOLD RAYMOND
Reply

This is interesting. I agree with the bees. I keep mine in a 2-sided shed to maximize sun in winter and shade in summer. They have done well except for wax moths last year. I am new at this and did not recognize the sign. I got it now! I froze hive boxes, frames & all in the 36° below weather last winter.

Kathy
Reply

I’m just beginning to be a beekeeper, am very excited to start my classes in August, in Washington state. Was very interested in your information about your bees and hives. I love to be in the outdoors collecting edible mushrooms. Bees will be my new adventure and hope I become an experienced beekeeper as yourself. Know how important they are to our lives with wonderful food. Thank you, kathy

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty, the adventure you describe was most enjoyable. But darn it Rusty now you’re making me feel responsible for a hive, and I don’t know if I’m up for it. That giant oak gall we spotted — that is more my management style.

The only fair turn around is to dub those bumble bees, whose nest you kept me from stepping into, Bombus burlewi. (OK, they may have been B. sitkensis, but B. burlewi has a certain ring to it.) … Either way, like the new swarm colony you found, the bumbles were also nesting in the shade.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I hadn’t thought of that: they were indeed in deep shade and very happy about it, from the sound they made. [News flash: as I was writing this, the bait hive behind my house filled to overflowing, the one where you were asking about the wooden plugs. Some were going in the top, some the bottom, so I had to remove the divider. It is one huge swarm. Oh yes, in the shade.]

Kevin Baughen
Reply

Right on several counts I think… 😉

1) Bees do not read the same books as the rest of us

2) Bees love shade but for our French bees, not when that shade is a tree that drips rain water incessantly onto the hive roof or strong winds blow branches down that knock the hives over!

Just as well cheap beach umbrellas are so easy to get here in France…

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Kevin –

What Rusty’s photos don’t show here (though probably can be seen in some other post) is that the stand that holds this group of hives includes a sturdy sloping roof that deflects leaves and drizzle. This isn’t a full enclosure like the Swiss housing systems, but seems to be a sturdy well thought out design that she uses repeatedly.

I suspect that why hives get sited en-masse in the open has more to do with beekeeper convenience. Rusty doesn’t just have hives — she has a physical fitness plan (un-plan) that requires one who is willing and able to schlep some weighty stuff down a woodland trail.

Alistair
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Fun article (as usual!). I had a weak colony which didn’t build this spring and petered out. I was a bit lazy about moving it and a few weeks ago I saw some scouts checking it out. They left after a couple of days (must have got a better offer!). So I took out the remains of the old colony, but left some comb. A week later I had another set of scouts investigating and a couple of days later they’d moved in.

The site is on a low hive stand in the shade of a large weeping willow and a shed.
The shed is actually why I got into beekeeping—a colony moved in to the shed wall and I had a beekeeper take it away. A couple of years later another colony moved into the shed wall again, though we thought we’d blocked up the holes. I decided that as they obviously liked it there, I should learn how to look after them (and move them a few feet into a more convenient hive).

Rusty
Reply

Alistair,

Used hives, used sheds—the bees love that stuff.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Great narrative and pictures, Rusty!

One of our very senior club members says, “The bees ain’t read the book!’

I have bit my tongue about this for two years, but from many swarm accounts including yours, it seems the book the bees ain’t read is the highly-praised “HoneyBee Democracy.” Is anyone else with me in a tiny minority who thought it was more about the author’s endless, mind-numbingly detailed research designs than how bees make and carry out decisions?

I was reminded of the book because so many of the swarm traps were in open land. Yes, he had to use an island setting to isolate the bees being observed. But that completely eliminates shade as a factor, as your story shows!

Anyway thanks for the reminder that I need to get a chainsaw person to remove a few scrub trees down the hill from my hives, that cut off early sun from the entrances this time of year. Some tall, rather spindly locust & maple trees shade them nicely at noon, but these trees have grown out since the bee yard was located, and they need to go.

Happy to debate the merits of “HoneyBee Democracy.” Honestly, I couldn’t finish it.

Hope you’re getting a good nectar flow!

Nan
Corinth, KY

Bruce
Reply

Hi Rusty,

It is my understanding that placement of hives in the sun does two things: earlier warm-up for earlier foraging, as you state; and protection from wax moths.

Some beekeepers say they store their idle frames under a shed where the sunshine can illuminate the boxes/frames and that deters the moth. I always wondered, what protects them after dark?

Rusty
Reply

Bruce,

It is true that storing frames so light gets inside deters wax moths. Lots of us store supers criss-cross in stacks so light can get in each one. It doesn’t need to be direct sunlight which, in any case, might melt the wax.

But a beehive with a colony inside is plenty dark enough for wax moths. It doesn’t matter if it’s sitting right in direct sun, it’s still dark enough inside to support wax moths. That theory doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Linda Beehler
Reply

I already have my two hives sitting out in the sun. They love cloudy days but most of the time they are in the full sun. What suggestion of a shade element are you thinking of?

Thank you, I always love reading your posts!

Linda in Michigan

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

I’m not saying you should run out and move your hives. I’m saying that when placing hives, beekeepers shouldn’t feel compelled to place hives in the sun. It just isn’t necessary.

Rodney
Reply

Rusty,

I really enjoy your comments and ideas. I would like to share a brief story related to this one.

This is my third year in this adventure called beekeeping. This winter, I lost both of my colonies, so I decided to move the hives to a new location. The original location put them in full sun most of the day. Now the new location is in the edge of the hardwoods on my property. This move was a result of one of your posts.

I installed a new swam purchased from a company in the North GA mountains vs. South GA where I have purchased in the past. Again, this is related to one of your post. (I live in the foot hills of the Appalachians.) I installed them in the middle of March of this year.

Long story short, the original queen failed, so I purchased a new queen at no small expanse, and installed her. My job prevents me from checking on my girls as often as is “required”, so I check on them about every two weeks. Because of my schedule, checking on the new queen was not “timely”. When I finally did get an opportunity to visit them, the second queen had failed. Panic set in. I did however notice supersedure cells, so I left well enough alone to see what might happen. It was a long stressful time till my next visit.

In the mean time I visited a local beekeepers meeting and was encouraged to be patient and wait, that my lack of intrusion might be just what the girls needed. Upon the next visit, I found no queen, eggs, larva or any other signs of a queen, other than workers carrying pollen into the hive. Again, panic and indecision set in. What to do…. The decision was made to wait till my next visit and see what the girls might do. This past weekend, I got to visit them and WOW! There she was in all her glory with capped brood, eggs, and larva. Oh the elation at the sight.

Maybe you are onto something, at least for backyard beekeepers, that less is more. Just like wild swarms, allow them to govern themselves to a degree. I had pondered allowing them to also swarm as they were getting crowded, but decided against it since it is this late in the season. My thought process is to let them swarm in the spring. They seem to “bee” wiser about all this than I am.

Keep up the informative post.

Rusty
Reply

Rodney,

I can relate to this. It seems I do less with my bees every year and the results have been good. I check for mites and I assure they have enough winter feed, otherwise I let them do their own thing.

Frank M
Reply

Rusty–

Please keep up the great insights into beekeeping! Whenever I see your HoneyBeeSuite in my email, I stop everything and read it….I know it will always provide me some great insight, some good tips and often a good laugh. Thanks for your great work with bees.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Frank.

Julia
Reply

I can imagine bees preferring light shade, and have been advised that swarm lures are best placed there. As far as keeping hives in the sun, I was always under the impression that in W. Washington, that advice was mostly given as a nosema/moisture mitigation strategy. Thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Julia,

I’ve never had a problem with Nosema here in the damp. Moisture either. In any case, there is not enough sun October through about April to control moisture even if the hives were not shaded. You need other moisture control strategies.

Dave
Reply

I am comfortable with my hives being kept in mostly morning sun and mostly afternoon shade. As I get older, however, a prime advantage of having sunshine available during inspections is so that I can see the eggs! Shade is a killer for me when looking for eggs. Even worse is dappled shade! And, yes, for those of interested in larger and more productive hives, morning sun is good.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I can’t imagine having to look for eggs all that often, but in any case, the sun is ten steps away.

Li
Reply

Rusty,
I like your robbing screen. Can you share where you got that? Li

Rusty
Reply

Li,

It’s a new product from BeeSmart Designs, but I don’t see them listed on their website yet. The ones I have were a prototype, I think.

Tom F.
Reply

Most of my hives are in the shade, and they are thriving. I’ve kept them there for eight years. The bees seem to like it, especially here in South Carolina where it gets plenty hot in the summer time.

Tim
Reply

Love the posts

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