A Year in the Apiary:

Keeping Bees with Limited Space

by Claire Condra

My property is long and narrow, and I have eight nextdoor neighbors. The zoning requirements here are typical of many cities: Backyard beekeepers can maintain two bee hives, provided they are located twenty-five feet from nearby homes, cannot be seen from the public right-of-way, and are surrounded by a six-foot flyover barrier.
When I made a sitemap for my zoning permit, the only place that met the requirements was right in the middle of my fifty-foot lot. So how much room does that leave for an apiary? Not much, but just enough for two hives.

The only level place was down at the bottom of the slope where fronds from one of my neighbor’s Mexican fan palms sometimes fall during storms. I thought it would be a good idea to build a structure to deflect anything that might come crashing down when the wind picks up. And because the area can be seen from my neighbor’s front porch, I wanted something that would direct the bees away from their house, look good, and shield my bee hives from view.

At the time, I just wanted to make something for my own use. But after a while, I realized what a useful solution this would be for anyone who wants to keep bees near neighbors.

Apiary site - early spring
A circle of sunflowers sprouts in early Spring.
Jacaranda in bloom
Jacaranda blossoms carpet the ground two months later. Be careful not to step on the bees!

Finding a frame

Although most flyover barriers are simple screens or hedges, one thing led to another, and soon I was creating an enclosed apiary with an opening in the roof for the bees to come and go.

While searching online for frame-making ideas, I discovered the Harrogate Arbour from Agriframes™ in the United Kingdom. I had seen their garden structures before and liked them a lot. Their smaller “Classic” model is large enough for two bee hives and more than tall enough to satisfy the flyover barrier requirement. Although it’s a little pricey, it has a ten-year warranty and is much nicer than anything I could build. So I ordered one from Garden Artisans, their reseller in the United States.

Recently I had built a garden shed down at the bottom of the slope, so the ground was already fairly level. I put down 1/2-inch chicken wire to prevent animals from burrowing in. (In hindsight, 1/4-inch hardware cloth is a better choice to keep mice out, but I was more concerned about skunks, opossum, and raccoons.) Then I covered the ground with pea gravel, assembled the frame, and sunk its legs into the ground. I also wrapped the lower walls of the frame in chicken wire and overlapped the floor, for good measure.

Agriframes arbor
The Harrogate Arbour from Agriframes was designed to be a shady place covered with vines where you can sit in the garden, but it makes a great frame for an enclosed apiary.

Making a cover

The next step in this project was to make a form-fitting pattern and sew what is essentially a big slipcover for the frame, with a panel across the front for a door and an opening in the roof for the bees. It was basically like cutting out and sewing a tent, and took over my dining room and patio for a few days.

I used heavy-duty shade cloth for the lower walls, and light-weight shade cloth for the upper walls and roof. The seams were sewn with UV-resistant heavy-duty outdoor thread, and the front panel sealed with Velcro®.

Because at its highest point the frame is 7 feet 3 inches — or 2.21 meters — tall, it helps to have an extra set of hands to fit the cover over the frame. One person can stand on a ladder, while the other adjusts the fabric. Once in place, the cover can be attached to the frame with zip ties.

However, the front panel was still the one place where a persistent raccoon with nimble fingers might find its way in.

I found a good solution from a company called Yardlink. Their NoDig™ cedar fencing system is attached to posts that you pound into the ground. Because the combined width of two gates was wider than the frame, I bought one of their fencing panels and cut it in half. Ideally, the gates should have a latch on the back to outsmart any raccoons and be lined with chicken wire or hardware cloth, so that the entire perimeter of the apiary is reinforced.

So there you have it!

After a couple of years of testing, my enclosed apiary is settled into its surroundings, but has not gone unnoticed by the wildlife in my yard. Sometimes a bird perches on top of the frame and lizards climb up the sides to sun themselves. A neighbor’s cat stops by to swat a bee through the net and then curls up to sleep in front of the gate. Over the past year I’ve found evidence of one skunk that tried to dig underneath, but didn’t get very far.

Apiary and ladder
At its highest point, the frame is 7 feet 3 inches, or 2.21 meters tall.
Bee yard
My finished bee yard.

Reclaiming your space

Here’s what I learned: An enclosed apiary creates an expanded safe zone for the bees and reduces events that trigger defensive behavior. It prevents children and pets from coming into direct contact with the hives, and discourages most common urban predators and robbers (of the insect variety) from gaining access.

Although an enclosed apiary keeps most bees out of your way, you will bring them right back if you put their water source in the wrong place. Bees love pond water, and a half whiskey barrel with plants and mosquito fish makes a good, low maintenance, and nutritious water source. Just make sure to place it where the bees won’t cross your path as they haul water back to the hive, because they will be there in force on hot days.

Another activity that might cause concern for the uninitiated is the way bees fly in circles around the hive on sunny afternoons. Although sometimes mistaken for a swarm, it’s just young bees learning to identify landmarks so they will know how to return to the hive when they become foragers.

I’ve read posts from new beekeepers asking when these “orientation flights” will end. The answer is never, as long as there are new bees to replace the old. Once worker bees become foragers, they live only about six weeks. It’s just part of their “out with the old and in with the new” life cycle. But if the hive is located near your patio or other outdoor living space, their orientation flights might soon become too much of a good thing. The good news is that the seven-foot height of the frame shifts their training sessions well overhead and toward the rear, which keeps the area in front of the apiary remarkably free of bees.

An unexpected benefit of having the apiary entrance so high off the ground is that it gives bees an opportunity to show their flair. When returning with a heavy load, some bees shift into neutral and slowly glide — sometimes in a spiral — or even free fall from the roof to stick a landing at the hive entrance.

This behavior must go back to when bees lived in treetops, but I haven’t seen it described anywhere. Maybe they’re just conserving energy, but it looks like fun.

Jacaranda, Mexican Fan Palms, and apiary
A Mexican fan palm towers over the apiary. Washingtonia robusta is native to Baja California and is host to the hooded oriole. The females strip fibers from the fronds to weave distinctive teardrop basket nests.

Studies show that bees — like humans — have different temperaments, and that some are actually thrill seekers. After watching them, I believe it!

So, back to my story. At this point, all I needed was some bees!

*Patent pending.


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