Many factors are important in determining a beehive location, including the relative amounts of sun and shade for bees. Many beekeepers insist that honey bee hives should be placed in full sun. But like most aspects of beekeeping, it’s impossible to make one rule for all locations.
If you travel through wide open farmlands, you will often see beehives placed squarely in the blazing sun, perhaps sitting in a field of clover or alfalfa. It’s easy for those who are just starting beekeeping to look at hives belonging to experienced beekeepers and think, “Full sun must be the right way!” But stop and think. Do you see shade anywhere? Those hives might be in full sun because there is no shade. Remember, too, that many of those hives will be moved once the bloom is over, meaning the full-sun position lasts only a few weeks. Just because we often see hives in full sun doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.
The Case for More Sun
Back in the days when there were fewer threats to honey bees, beekeepers learned that when a hive was warmed by the morning sun, the bees got to work earlier in the day. Likewise, if the hive got evening sun, the bees worked till dusk. All of this benefited the beekeeper by maximizing honey yields and profits.
But researchers who studied feral colonies to see what the bees preferred, found something different. Given a choice, feral honey bees nearly always chose a shady spot on the edge of the forest. Most of these wild colonies have an entrance that faces south. When the light pokes through the southern opening, the bees know it’s time to go to work.
Feral hives can also be found in locations that get no direct sun from morning till night. These hives might be high in the leafy limbs of a tree, built into the framing of a barn, or even wedged into a concrete utility box on the shady side of a building. All of these bee-selected locations prove that a colony can thrive in full sun, part sun, or no sun.
Sun Creates a Hot Hive
When you’re thinking about sun and shade for bees, you also have to think about heat. Beehives in direct sun can get incredibly hot, and the hotter it gets, the harder the bees have to work to keep the hive cool. The brood — all the baby bees including eggs, larvae, and pupae — must be kept at a constant temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. To do this, the bees first collect water and spread a thin film of it around the edges of the brood comb. Then they stand on the comb and fan their wings at an incredible rate to make air currents that evaporate the water. This is called “evaporative cooling” and it works like an air conditioner.
The hotter it gets, the harder the bees must work to keep the brood from overheating. In addition, too many warm bodies inside the hive make the problem worse, so some of the bees may leave the nest and assemble on the outside of the hive in clumps. We call this bearding, and it’s a sure sign of a hot hive.
Too Much Heat is Unhealthy
If a colony in full sun has to work too hard to stay cool, the colony may eventually swarm or abscond. In extreme situations, where there is inadequate ventilation and no water, the wax combs can melt, killing the bees. This is especially true in hot climates with long days.
To keep your bees healthy and happy, make sure they have a plentiful supply of water and adequate ventilation. Even if your bees must be in full sun, a screened bottom board, a screened inner cover, an upper entrance, or a combination of all three can improve the flow of air through the hive and keep it cool. Also, a hive painted a light color like white or yellow will reflect sunlight instead of absorbing it.
Beekeeping in winter presents the challenge of keeping your hives warm. Direct sun in winter can keep the hive warm even in very cold temperatures. You can maximize the warmth in winter by reducing air flow through the hive and absorbing any excess water that accumulates. Adding a windbreak, such as a wall of straw bales, can also help keep the hive warm.
If you live in a very damp location that is swampy or gets lots of rain, a hive in a shady location may have trouble staying dry. Some beekeepers believe that shade encourages small hive beetles, but not all agree. Everything in beekeeping is dependent on local conditions, so you may have to spend some time finding the perfect hive location for your climate.
The Ideal Amount of Sun and Shade for Bees
The ideal situation would be early morning sun, late afternoon shade, and evening sun. A colony in those conditions would warm up early in the day and start flying. By late afternoon when temperatures spike, the bees would be shielded from direct sunlight. And then, late in the day when the temperature begins to drop, the hive will warm up again before the evening coolness sets in.
When you’re looking for the perfect combination of sun and shade for bees, don’t forget to look up. Do you see bare branches? Deciduous trees can be great for honey bees because the bare branches of winter allow the sun to warm the hive and keep it cozy. Then, in the hot days of summer when you are trying to keep honey bees cool, the leaves keep the hive shaded and cooler. No wonder feral colonies are so fond of deciduous trees!
The Perfect Beehive Location
But remember that the ideal beehive location isn’t always possible. Since honey bees are adaptable to various amounts of sunlight, you can give the sun or shade decision a lower priority. Keeping your bees away from neighbors and livestock is more important, as is putting bees in a place that is comfortable for you to work. Remember, nothing is worse than a bee suit on a hot day.
You can’t maximize all parameters all the time, so when it comes to sun or shade for your bees, think about it but don’t worry about it. Most honey bees do well, in spite of their keepers.
What have you discovered? What is the best proportion of sun and shade for bees in your local area?
Rusty is a master beekeeper in Washington State. She has been fascinated by honey bees since childhood and, in recent years, has become enthralled with the native bees that share pollination duty with honey bees. She has an undergraduate degree in agronomic crops and a master’s degree in environmental studies with an emphasis on pollination ecology. Rusty owns a website, HoneyBeeSuite.com, and is the director of a small non-profit, the Native Bee Conservancy of Washington State. Through the non-profit, she helps organizations with conservation projects by taking species inventories and planning pollinator habitat. Besides writing for the website, Rusty has published in Bee Culture and Bee World magazines, and has regular columns in Bee Craft (UK) and the American Bee Journal. She frequently speaks to groups about bee conservation, and has worked as an expert witness in bee sting litigation. In her spare time, Rusty enjoys macro photography, gardening, canning, baking, and quilting.