How much land does it take to feed one colony of bees?
Conventional wisdom suggests that to nourish one colony of honeybees it takes one acre of blossoming trees, shrubs, or flowers to thrive. No one really knows for sure, and of course, there are so many variables that no generalization can be assumed. It may be one acre in some regions but five or more elsewhere. For almond pollination, two colonies per acre are needed for a well-pollinated crop. Crop insurance policies often require this rate before they pay any claims for a poor crop.
How big is an acre? Visualize a football field (minus the end zones) and you’ll see that a lot of blooming flowers are needed. Your bees will assure a good backyard crop yield for your local, melons, squash, and apples, but your garden furnishes only a tiny share of the nectar needed for feeding a colony. One acre becomes sufficient if there is a continuous pollen and nectar supply available from spring to fall, with sources including herbs, fruits, vegetables, bushes, clover, flowers, flowers, and more flowers.
You can’t go to a store and buy a bag of “Purina Bee Chow,” although beekeepers do occasionally feed supplements when their hives do not have sufficient natural forage. Sugar syrup is fed to bees to provide calories to help the bees survive. For them to raise and feed the brood they need protein, which is pollen, or a rich pollen substitute. This supplemental feeding is useful for short time only and is used especially when they need lots of bees ready to pollinate crops before the optimum bloom time.
First spring pollen comes from willow, aspen, maple and alder but each of these are only good for a few weeks. Dandelions bloom about three weeks followed by clover. Next comes the fruit trees with lots of nectar and pollen but in a few weeks they are gone. Black locust, basswood and other trees can furnish nectar from millions of blossoms for a large tree but the bloom time is short. Even with these trees, an untimely rain may wash out most of the nectar.
A bee yard surrounded by a forest does not yield a good honey crop. Dense shade from a conifer forest does not allow growth of sun loving nectar plants. Open meadowland, preferably with wetland nearby, is the best location for a bee yard and for good honey yield.
Some native meadow blossoms sustain a longer nectar flow. The drought-resistant, yellow sweet clover bears tiny flowers, hard to see, but blooms from early July through September and produces a good honey surplus where it is grown. When they can’t find local blooms, bees sometimes travel up to five miles to find the food that they need.
A recent report from London highlights the need for adequate foraging area for a good honey yield. Beekeeping in cities has become popular in European cities as well as in New York City. A London business group called “InMidtown” wants to supply more hives to new urban beekeepers to increase honey production. Although it sounds like a good idea, the London Beekeepers Association opposes this and claims that there are already too many hives in the 600-square mile London region. With 3,337 registered hives, that means 5.5 colonies per square mile and they limit honey production to only 37 pounds per hive—way below the national average. The InMidtown group is busy planting honeybee forage in whatever space they can find, but the beekeepers group prefers limiting hives to increase the honey yield per hive and educating the public to sound beekeeping practices.