Speaking to beekeepers on technical aspects of beekeeping will generate many different answers, some of them conflicting. This is because much of the beekeepers’ preferences are driven by personal experience and not theory. Many new beekeepers ask which direction a beehive should face, so let’s dispel some beekeeping myths on this topic.
The bees do not have a preference for hive orientation, but as beekeepers, we need to make sure the environment is conducive to productivity from the bees. The best orientation for a beehive in the northern hemisphere is south-facing or east-facing, but the location will dictate orientation.
Many of the rules around beekeeping are not geared around a particular preference of the bees and the colony, but rather to manipulate the hive conditions to get maximum production from the bees and keep the colony healthy and strong!
Do The Bees Have A Preference For Hive Orientation?
Many of the rules and guidelines we have around beekeeping have come out of the commercial beekeeping sector since this sector has the most experience with bees and beekeeping.
Many of the best practices relating to beekeeping that come out of the commercial sector are intended to get the most production from a colony and keep the colony strong and healthy for a long time rather than for the comfort or any particular preference that the bees may have.
When bees nest in the wild, they do not show any preference for a particular orientation for their nesting sites. They will choose a site that provides for their main requirements for a home, which include the following.
- Out of direct wind. Bees will choose a hive site that is protected from the prevailing winds. This is because the wind sucks the heat out of the hive. The bees need to maintain a temperature between 93 to 97-Fahrenheit or 34 to 36-Celsius for their eggs and brood to develop correctly. If the hive is in the wind, the bees will work harder to maintain the internal hive temperature.
- Correct humidity. Bees like their hives to be warm and dry. Damp or humid areas will not be selected as a good place to establish a colony.
- A clear flight path. Bees will choose a hive location that allows for a clear, unhindered flight path to and from the hive entrance.
- Protection from predators. Bees select a location that will provide good protection from predators or make predators work hard to get the hive open, allowing the bees to defend the hive and drive the predator off before they can do too much damage. (Learn more about bee predators)
- Adequate water supply. Bees use a lot of water to drink for hydration, honey production, and the thermoregulation of the hive’s interior. Thus, bees will choose a nesting site that is close to a stable water supply.
- Sufficient forage in the area. Bees need enough food available as close to the hive-site as possible. This allows them to gather food without having to travel too far afield in search of forage.
There seems to be no particular preference in wild bees for a particular direction orientation when they select a spot to make their home, so why is this aspect important to beekeepers?
Many beekeepers assume that since bees have an internal GPS governed by the sun and the earth’s magnetism, they need a hive in a particular orientation. Bees do use their internal GPS to navigate and find their way home, but it is not dependent on the orientation of the hive.
Once you have been a beekeeper for a while and have relocated a few hives, you will notice that when the bees are repositioned in their new environment, they will perform orientation flights. Large quantities of bees will fly around the hive to get their bearings and orient themselves to the new location.
Once the foraging bees have oriented themselves to the new location, the colony will settle down and get back into the routine of their normal daily duties.
However, as a beekeeper, we want to position our beehives in a particular orientation to make the beehive as suitable a home as possible for the colony. This will ensure the bees do not leave and maximize the productivity of the colony.
What Is The Best Orientation For A Beehive?
The best orientation or direction for a beehive to face will mostly depend on your location. Firstly, where in the world you are located, and secondly, the layout of your apiary site.
Beekeepers in the northern hemisphere, including the US and Europe, prefer to position their beehives south-facing or east-facing.
Beekeepers in the southern hemisphere, including the southern parts of Africa, South America, and Australia, prefer the beehives to face north or east.
Since the bees do not dictate these beehive orientation preferences, what is the reasoning and potential benefits behind these directional preferences among beekeepers?
Benefits of an East-facing beehive
The preference for east-facing hives is that the hive entrance will be warmed and illuminated early in the day by the rising sun. This wakes the bees up earlier in the day and gets them working gathering pollen and nectar. Basically, this gives the bees a longer workday, increasing the overall production of the colony, especially when the local nectar flow is strong.
Many beekeepers will position their beehives with the entrance facing east to get warmth from the rising sun, shade during the middle of the day when it is hot, and with the setting sun catching the hive again to warm the bees for the coming night.
As beekeepers, we constantly need to monitor our apiary sites regularly to ensure the hives are in the best location as the seasons change to provide the best conditions for the bees. Hot bees are not happy or productive bees, and cold bees are also neither happy nor productive.
This east-facing direction for the beehive is valid in the northern or the southern hemisphere since the sun always rises in the east, no matter where you are in the world!
Benefits of a South-facing beehive
What are the benefits of positioning your hive to face south? If you live in the northern half of the world, the winter sun follows a shallow arch trajectory in the southern part of the sky.
The bees are not very active in winter if their beehive is not warmed by the sun. The bees will be occupied by regulating the hive’s internal temperature to protect the brood and keep the hive warm.
This means fewer bees are free to forage and collect pollen and nectar in the field since most of the workers will be on hive heating duty!
Facing the beehive in a southerly direction ensures that the low arch of the winter sun in the sky constantly warms the front of the hive and the entrance, keeping the hive warmer than if it faced any other direction.
This strategy keeps the hive warm in winter and frees up workers to go out into the field and search for winter forage.
Generally speaking, encouraging the bees to forage in winter is not to gain a honey harvest for the beekeeper but to build up honey stores in the hive to keep the colony well-fed and thriving.
A colony that comes through the winter strongly and in good health will be very productive in the springtime. A colony that suffered and lost bees due to hunger or overwork heating the hive will come out of winter in a weakened state. This colony will need to build itself up in the early part of spring and will take longer to produce a honey harvest for the beekeeper.
For this reason, many beekeepers will feed their bee colonies in regions where the winters are too cold for the bees to fly and there is not enough forage to sustain the colonies, but that is a topic for another day!
Should you position your beehive North-facing?
If you live in the southern half of the world, the winter conditions are the reverse of the northern hemisphere.
In the southern hemisphere, the low arc of the winter sun will be in the northern sky. For this reason, beekeepers in these parts of the world would orient their beehives to face north to gain the warmth of the northern winter sun.
If you are a beekeeper in the northern hemisphere, facing your beehives in a northerly direction would not be considered good practice, especially if you have cold winters.
Can you adjust the direction your beehives face?
Some beekeepers like to face their beehives south-east to get the benefits of both the rising sun in the east and the southern winter sun.
Likewise, some beekeepers in the southern hemisphere prefer their hives to face northeast for the same reasons.
However, it is not imperative for your beehives to face a particular direction, especially if you are a hobby beekeeper, or if facing the beehive in a certain direction will result in an inhospitable condition for the colony.
For example, if you face your beehive south and the prevailing winds in your area come from that direction, the bees will not find this orientation comfortable. You would either need to provide a windbreak to prevent the wind from blowing directly into the hive entrance or reposition the hive to face a different direction.
As you progress in your beekeeping journey, you will find that you will need to adapt according to the local conditions and place your bees in orientations that do not conform with these accepted norms.
What if you cannot orient the beehive correctly?
Sometimes, the local conditions of your apiary site are not conducive to orienting your beehive facing in one of the prime directions? Will this affect your colony, and what steps should you take to ensure that your bees thrive?
The answer to this question is mostly dependent on the type of beekeeper you are. Are you a hobby beekeeper who is not too concerned about optimizing the production of the hive, or are you intending to be a commercial beekeeper who is profit-minded?
A commercial beekeeper would not settle for a location for an apiary site where the hives cannot be oriented correctly and would search for a more appropriate location.
Hobby beekeepers often start in their own backyard, where the location of the beehives may be dictated by other factors such as proximity to the neighbors’ house or entertainment area, or even your own house, garden shed, or entertainment area.
Learn more about the safety of beekeeping in the backyard.
Will the bees suffer if the hive is not oriented correctly?
Even though it is not crucial that your beehives are oriented in a particular direction, you still need to ensure that your chosen location meets the general requirements of the bees.
The bees will not suffer if you place the hive in an orientation that is not according to the accepted norms in your region. However, you may have a slightly lower production rate from the colony. If you are okay with that, your bees will be too!
If you set the beehive in a location that does not cater to the most important needs of the colony, the bees will abandon the hive and search for more appropriate accommodation.
Your local conditions will determine the suitability for the hive orientation. If you live in a temperate climate where the summer is not too hot and the winters are not too cold, you can safely position your bees in any orientation that you like.
Some beekeepers in these regions build stands that accommodate 4 beehives simultaneously, one facing north, one south, one east, and one west.
The theory behind this configuration is that the weather is temperate enough for the bees to be productive all year round without special orientation. This stand configuration makes it easy for the beekeeper to work on 4 hives in a single location without carrying equipment from hive to hive.
In Conclusion, Which Direction Should A Beehive Face?
Bees do not have a preference for the orientation for the beehives. They have not been predisposed to select hive sites in the wild that face a certain direction.
The importance of beehive direction has become a topic among beekeepers because it can affect the productivity of a beehive.
For commercial beekeepers, this is a reason to orient the hives in a particular way to maximize the production of each colony and thereby maximize the profits from each hive.
For hobby beekeepers, the orientation of the hive is less important, so long as the other conditions for the housing of the bees are met.