The Cottage Smallholder

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How to move a hive of bees

Photo of a honey bee on our rambling rector rose

Honey bee on Rosa Rambling Rector

At lunch time I stood and worked out the logistics of moving our new colony. It’s sitting on top of the old colony at the moment. The flights of the worker bees distracted me and I watched them flying in and out of the hive.

Imagine the biggest airport in the world and then multiply it by 100. Without the help of Air Traffic Controllers, groups of bees are taking off and landing constantly. There are no mid air collisions even when there are new worker bees bobbing up and down in front of the hive.

This first flight of worker bees is called their orientation flight. Testing out the aeroplane, so to speak, and practicing take off and landing. It always makes me sad to think that these bees will be dead within a matter of weeks. They work so hard.

By the time this happens, new bees will have moved up the ranks to replace them. In her prime a Queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. At the height of the summer the hive will contain about 50,000 – 70,000 bees.

The queen bee can live for two or three years but honey bee workers only live for six weeks in the summer. They start as cleaners, preparing the vacated brood cells for the Queen. to lay fresh eggs. After 4 days the worker bees feed the older larvae with honey and pollen. They progress to feeding young larvae a few days later.

After two weeks they are processing the nectar into honey by evaporating the water. They are also making wax and packing the pollen that is brought in by the foraging workers. At 19 days they become guards and begin to make orientation flights to establish the routes back to the hive.

Within three weeks they are out foraging. Eventually they die out in the fields when their wings simply wear out. That’s why winter bees can live for several months. They don’t fly about so much.

We chose the spot for our bee hive with great care, as moving a hive can be a bit of a palaver. Bees need a reasonable flight path to the entrance of the hive that does not cross over busy paths or where you sit in the garden. Early morning sun is a good idea as it will warm the hive and get the bees up and out. Some afternoon shade is beneficial, so they don’t waste too much energy fanning to keep cool in the summer.

We divided the colony using the Snelgrove board and this is the final week that the two colonies will live on top of each other. The colony with the old queen is at the bottom of the tower. Their entrance is the normal front door at the front of the hive.

The new colony living at the top have their entrance door at the back of the hive. This arrangement makes it easier for the bees to differentiate which colony they belong to.

The bees would be happy to live in the tower block but it’s too high for me to lift off the boxes safely. So the first step in the move is sideways and planned for next weekend.

It is advisable to move bees over three miles or under three feet. If you move them over three miles they will be out of their flying area. This avoids the possibility of them emerging from the hive and spotting a significant landmark that will guide them back to the spot where the hive used to be. If the environment is totally new the worker bee will reprogramme to return to the new home site and will not try to return to the previous site.

If you move a hive over three feet any flying bees that are out foraging will return to the location of the original hive. They cannot search for the hive and will die.

Initially we will set up another hive stand beside the existing tower. The normal position for a brood box is on the top of the hive stand. But this would mean a big drop in height so we are going to jack up the height with a beer crate. We will try moving the bees a foot down and a foot along.

Each week we will move the colony gradually towards its final resting place, a foot or so at a time. We want the front door to be at the front of the hive so we’ll gradually rotate the hive a little each week so that finally the entrance will be at the front of the hive. This operation will take about six weeks.

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  1. Hi, we live in the West of Ireland and have a pretty sheltered spot, the weather is very mild and we are surrounded by hedges, fields and tree’s we also have hundreds of acres of Bog Land which is now protected. I have planted up a small Orchard which is sheltered by a hedge. I would love to keep Bee’s and would like to ask what is the best time of year to buy the Bee’s and Hive?

  2. Joe, that sounds almost too small to be a swarm. You can shake bees off your grill without harming them. Just place a cardboard box underneath and shake reasonably gently. Probably best to wear gloves. I guess you don’t have a bee suit. My dad used to wear a hat with some net curtain material over it, tucked inside his jacket.

    Good luck.

  3. joe rees

    have a small hive , about 12 bees nested on one bar handle bar grip on my grill. can i get a small container near them illed with honey to encourage them to move? i don’t want to harm them or me. just want my grill back.

  4. Fiona Nevile

    That’s great news, John. Thanks for the update.

    Just about to clean our an old uninhabited hive in the hope that it will attract a passing swarm in May! Our other hive is going great guns at the mo.

  5. johnmcc

    Ten days on and it seems to have worked. The cold weather kept the bees in the hive for a while, but now they’re flying freely. I’ve fed them a couple of litres of sugar syrup (1 to 1 by weight) as there isn’t much food about for them. At first there were quite a few who returned to the site of the old hive – say between 50 and 100 were flying around looking lost – but the great majority have been flying in and out of the hive quite happily. I’m about to remove the Christmas tree from in front of the moved hive. It seems to have been a success.

  6. johnmcc

    I needed to relocate one of our hives within our quarter acre garden. Coventional wisdom says it can’t be done, but I read this tip on an American bee-keeping site, and am trying it: move the hive in cold weather when the bees aren’t flying (just above freezing yesterday here in Norfolk). When the hive’s in the new position, and before opening the entrance, place tree branches or a big potted shrub right in front of the hive – I’ve put our potted Christmas tree 18 inches away from the flight platform. This forces the bees to re-orientate when they leave the hive as they have to fly around the obstacle, and they will then return to the newly sited hive. After a week or two of warmer weather you can remove the obstacle and it should be business as usual.

    Obviously time will tell, but it’s sunny and much warmer today (easily 10 in the sun) and a few bees are flying . . . . and returning. I’ll update later, but so far it seems to be working.

  7. BestBeekeeping

    I always worked on the 3 feet/3 mile rule myself, but recently I came across a couple of blog posts by experienced (American) beekeepers saying that they moved their hives a few hundred yards in one go, with no adverse effects. Only a few bees went back to the original site. Personally, I still would be afraid to try it!

  8. Phil Salmon

    Good call I have moved the bees and it all went fine, left it about 9 days.

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