Table of Contents

Title Page




Is beekeeping for me?

Getting started with bees

Hive equipment

Honey bee biology

How to Handle bees

Nectar and pollen sources

Colony management

Feeding bees

Swarms and swarm prevention

Dividing and uniting colonies

Moving hives

Queen bees

Parasites, diseases and pests

Harvesting honey

Honey composition and properties

Extracting and processing honey

Comb honey



Laws affecting beekeeping

Beekeeping in New Zealand

Further sources of information


Handy tips

Back Cover Material


Two long-time colleagues critically reviewed the manuscript at the draft stage—Cliff Van Eaton scrutinised the entire text, and Mark Goodwin commented on the parasites, diseases and pests chapter. We are grateful for their contributions, though of course any errors or incorrect emphases in the final publication remain ours.

We are grateful to the following individuals and organisations for their generosity in allowing the use of illustrations in this book:

  • Peter Bray, Airborne Honey: Figs 6.1, 13.35, 15.2, 15.3, 17.6.
  • Trevor Bryant: Figs 4.2, 14.6.
  • Collection of the late Vince Cook: Fig.2.9.
  • Crown Copyright, courtesy of the Food and Environment Research Agency National Bee Unit: Figs 4.6, 4.7, 13.4, 13.17, 13.28–13.30.
  • Barry Donovan: Fig.4.18.
  • Jane Lorimer, Hillcrest Apiaries: Fig.12.11.
  • Jody Mitchell, Kaimai Range Honey: Figs 1.2, 2.4, 2.5, 4.11, 4.12, 11.2, 18.3.
  • Mark Goodwin, New Zealand Institute of Plant and Food Research: Figs 2.8, 3.10, 3.16, 4.5, 4.8, 6.2, 12.8, 13.1, 13.3, 13.5, 13.6, 13.8–13.14, 13.16, 13.18– 13.22, 13.24–27, 20.2.
  • Frank and Mary-Ann Lindsay, Lindsays’ Apiaries: Fig.3.14.
  • Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry: Figs 20.4, 20.5, 20.6.
  • : Fig.4.16.
  • Figs 4.13, 4.14, 19.1.
  • Collection of the late Herman Van Puffelen: Figs 4.3, 4.17.
  • John and Helen Wright, South Auckland Apiaries: Fig.17.1.


Nearly three decades ago Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand was written to fill the need for a comprehensive and up-to-date handbook on New Zealand apiculture. It enjoyed wide success, not only in New Zealand but to a surprising degree with beekeepers in other temperate climates who were looking for a practical manual.

Over the years the title was revised twice to take account of changes in scientific knowledge and beekeeping practice. We have now collaborated to produce a fourth edition that is completely revised and reordered, especially to take account of the dramatic and irrevocable changes brought about by the presence in New Zealand of the parasitic mite varroa.

Our aim in writing this book has been to give practical guidance on hive management, and to offer an insight into New Zealand beekeeping practices. For those with no beekeeping experience, it will explain what is involved in becoming a beekeeper and describe the industry in New Zealand. If you already keep bees, the book will deal with all the steps involved in managing colonies throughout the year and how to handle hive products. For overseas readers, it will provide an insight into New Zealand apiculture.

Any book that gives a recipe for beekeeping is doomed to failure. A honey bee colony is a complex and dynamic organisation, and is subject to the normal variations of natural systems rather than to a calendar or rule book. It is essential to understand bees before you can keep them, and all through the book we have sought to provide the reasons for the techniques under discussion.

Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand has been written from our decades of experience as beekeeping tutors and apicultural consultants, and is a result of discussions with many people who wanted to find out what they should be doing with their bees, or how they could get involved with beekeeping. The book has benefited from the multitude of questions about the ‘whys’ of beekeeping, as well as the ‘hows’.

While writing this fourth edition of the book we have received valuable assistance from colleagues who reviewed the manuscript, and generous provision of illustrations, which we have acknowledged separately. The book has also benefited from the ideas, suggestions and questions of colleagues in New Zealand and other countries, with whom we’ve had the privilege of working during our beekeeping careers.

Andrew Matheson
Murray Reid


Is beekeeping for me?

Beekeeping can be an immensely rewarding hobby, a source of guilt if you cannot give colonies the necessary attention at the right time, an expensive pastime, or a useful secondary source of income. Before getting into beekeeping you should think about what you want from it, and what you are prepared to put in.

People start keeping bees for many different reasons. Some simply enjoy honey and want to produce enough for their own needs. For many, a general interest in the honey bee or ecology prompts them to acquire hives. Others have economic reasons, and are attracted by the ideas of ‘free’ honey or pollination, or a profitable sideline business.


Here are a few things you should think about before deciding whether to become involved in beekeeping.

Allergic reactions

It is impossible to keep bees without being stung. Even if you always wear a complete set of protective clothing, you will get stung from time to time. Being stung is always painful, and localised swelling and itching is common. Most people do become accustomed to frequent stings, and eventually experience only minor swelling and itching.

A few people, though, don’t adjust in this way, and their reaction to stings may become increasingly severe—involving swelling, itchiness and a rash away from the sting site, or even difficulty in breathing. If you have these allergic reactions, or have never been stung before, consult a doctor before deciding to take up beekeeping.

You also need to consider family members. Bees can remain in vehicles or come into buildings and sting the unwary, and venom is brought home on clothing and gloves.

Diseases and chemicals

Now that the parasitic mite varroa is well established in New Zealand, you have to actively keep bees and not merely have them. Honey bees cannot survive for long in the presence of varroa without human intervention, and this usually means applying some form of mite-control chemical several times each year. Untreated honey bee colonies will die.

Heavy work

Beekeeping is heavy work and requires good physical fitness. Boxes of honey may weigh up to 40kg when full (the same as a bag of cement). When lifting them you will be wearing cumbersome protective clothing, often lifting the boxes from the ground and using your fingertips in relatively small handholds. The heaviest lifting is also done at the hottest time of year. However, using three-quarter depth boxes reduces the weight a beekeeper must lift.

Shifting hives can be even more difficult and is generally a two-person operation, as a two-storey, full-depth hive can weigh 70kg or more, depending on how much honey it contains.


You must visit your hives regularly if they are to stay healthy and productive, and if you are to remain confident and satisfied with your beekeeping. The biggest workload is in spring, and it is also in spring that fine weather seldom seems to coincide with weekends. Certain critical beekeeping tasks must be carried out when colony conditions dictate, not at the beekeeper’s convenience.


Good eyesight is needed for finding queens, looking for eggs, and diagnosing brood diseases. If you need glasses to see things close up or in fine detail, be sure to wear them when working with hives.


Beekeeping equipment, sugar for feed and chemicals for varroa control are expensive, and keeping just a few hives can be a costly hobby. But one or two dozen hives should pay for themselves, and with anything over about 25 hives beekeeping starts to become more than a hobby.

Now that varroa is established in New Zealand, full-time beekeepers find they can’t run as many hives per labour unit as they once did. Fortunately an increase in honey prices, especially manuka, and in pollination fees, has compensated somewhat for the extra costs and time involved in managing varroa. Now in the age of varroa commercial beekeepers generally run 400–500 hives per labour unit on average, whereas before varroa it was 600–800 or even more.

Red tape

There are some restrictions on keeping bees and selling bee products, as well as some annual compliance costs, but generally speaking beekeeping is hassle-free provided you are not creating a nuisance to others.

The main things you need to know are that:

  • you will require the permission of the landowner before siting your hives
  • the places where bees are kept (apiaries) need to be registered with the management agency for the American foulbrood pest management strategy
  • there is an annual registration fee of $20 per beekeeper and up to $15 per apiary
  • you must control American foulbrood disease and report on this
  • some cities have restrictions on keeping bees and may charge a fee for registering your apiary, and some may require you to get the written permission of your neighbours to keep bees
  • there are controls on processing bee products if you want to sell them
  • there are new controls to prevent toxic honey from being produced and offered for sale for human consumption.

These and other regulations are covered in Chapter 20.


The best way to test your liking for beekeeping is to gain practical experience before you get any hives of your own—either with an individual beekeeper or by joining a local beekeeping club. To start full of enthusiasm and then give up through loss of interest can be expensive. If you are not prepared to look after hives properly, don’t get any. Varroa will kill any colonies that are not managed on a regular basis, and neglected hives are a nuisance to the public and a potential source of bee diseases.

Fig.1.1 Learn from another beekeeper before you start beekeeping.


If you want an early return through a honey crop, spring is the best time to start keeping bees. In most areas of New Zealand the most suitable months are September to November, when early nectar and pollen sources are in flower and colonies have time to build up in strength before the summer honey flow. This is, though, a period when colonies need careful management.

It is easier from a management point of view to begin beekeeping during the summer, though unless you start with full-strength hives you may not produce any surplus honey until the following season. Beginning beekeeping in autumn means that careful management will be needed and no surplus honey will be produced until the following season. Colonies acquired in winter are difficult to check for brood diseases.

Fig.1.2 While we don’t recommend inspecting bees without wearing a veil, this does show bees can be very docile.


Once you become a beekeeper you will be joining a community of enthusiasts, and you will be part of one of New Zealand’s important primary industries. Honey, beeswax, pollen, bees and minor bee products are exported to different parts of the world. Within New Zealand, honey is enjoyed as a valuable food in its own right, as well as being a useful substitute for imported sugar and sugar-based products. Some honeys like manuka have gained a reputation for their antibiotic properties, while others have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics. Honey is now widely used in the food manufacturing and cosmetic industries.

You will also be part of beekeeping’s most valuable service, which is to pollinate New Zealand’s horticultural and agricultural crops and pasture legumes, a function worth billions of dollars annually.

Fig.1.3 A well-tended apiary in a home garden.


Getting started with bees

Once you’ve decided to begin beekeeping, you will first have to kit yourself out with protective clothing. To begin with you might borrow some gear, but once you decide to get hives of your own you will need to buy equipment and make some important decisions. This initial phase of beekeeping can be expensive, but it’s worth getting the right equipment as good-quality gear will last well if looked after.


If you want to feel confident when handling bees it is important that you wear the right protective clothing. There is no shame attached to being a ‘well-dressed beekeeper’ if it will make you a better beekeeper. Some of the gear can be dispensed with as you gain experience.

Protective equipment can be purchased from bee equipment stockists or made at home. It must be adequate for the job though, as poorly made clothing will not help you to gain confidence. The minimum protective gear for a beekeeper is: smoker, veil, overalls, boots and—to begin with at least—gloves.


This is probably the most important piece of beekeeper’s protective equipment, and is used to calm bees so they are less likely to sting. How to use a smoker is described in Chapter 5.

Smokers come in various shapes and sizes, mostly with an 80mm or 100mm diameter smoke chamber. Preferences vary, but smokers with a 100mm diameter chamber are more common and are probably easier to keep alight. A wrap-around shield protects you from burns when handling the smoker, and provides a convenient place to store the hive tool.


A veil will protect the face, and especially the eyes, from stings. It should be made of gauze stiff enough to stand away from the face and protect it from stings. The front panel of gauze must be black or dark-coloured, otherwise it is very difficult to see through.

Single-piece suits that incorporate veil, hat and overalls are very popular. They are best for hobbyist beekeepers as they are more bee-tight than the separate units, provided all the zips are closed and the zip joints are covered properly. The veil can be unzipped when not needed. You can also get a half suit that incorporates a hat, veil and jacket.

Fig.2.1 Having a full set of protective clothing will make your beekeeping much more enjoyable.

Some beekeepers like to wear a baseball cap under their bee suits, to keep the veil off the face and prevent bees stinging the nose and forehead, especially on windy days when the veil can be pressed against the face.

Some beekeepers prefer to use separate veils, hat and overalls, and these can be cheaper especially if you already have a hat with a rigid brim. A hat worn with a veil should have a stiff brim to keep the veil off the face, and should be light and comfortable to wear. Don’t use a felt hat, as bees will become entangled in the fabric and start stinging.

The best veil to buy is the round model, as it is easier to store when not in use. Square veils should be folded flat when not in use, to help keep their shape. Some bought veils have very long drawstrings. This method of fastening is inconvenient, and it is better to either buy veils with elastic ties or replace the drawstrings with elastic.

Veils will give more protection if they are put on before the overalls, so the bottom is tucked in, though this is less convenient if you are going from apiary to apiary.


If you don’t use a one-piece suit, a pair of overalls is a convenient way of excluding bees and keeping your clothes clean. Overalls should be light in colour for coolness and have a zip front. Sew up the side openings and make elasticised cuffs at the wrists and ankles, to prevent bees from getting inside.

Blue overalls (particularly dark blue) should not be used, as this colour is very conspicuous to bees. Aggressive bees may sting someone wearing blue more than they sting others nearby.


If you wear ordinary ankle boots, use gaiters to protect your ankles from stings, or gather the surplus cloth in each overall cuff and tie it into the knotted boot laces. Gumboots can be made perfectly bee-tight if you put the trouser leg inside the boot and the overall leg on the outside, and use an elasticised cuff or rubber band around the bottom of the overalls.


We recommend that new beekeepers wear gloves. They can be dispensed with as confidence grows, provided conditions are satisfactory—though many experienced beekeepers often wear gloves when they are in a hurry, or when the bees are aggressive. A few beekeepers develop allergies to propolis, and find they have to wear gloves as a result.

There are few adequate substitutes for leather beekeeping gloves. These are made of smooth leather and have long, elasticised cuffs to protect the wrists. Investment in a good pair of gloves is worthwhile, since they will last for a long time if treated well.

Rubber gloves are satisfactory for short periods but will make your hands sweat. If you do use them you should wear cotton gloves inside the rubber ones and wash them after each use. If you wear plain rubber gloves without the cotton gloves these should be sanitised after each use to avoid the risk of infection. Surgical gloves also work, but are not very robust.

If you don’t wear gloves, stop bees from walking inside your sleeves by rolling up your sleeves or using elasticised cuffs or separate armlets.

Hive tool

This toughened steel lever has a flat, thin blade used for prising apart hive components and scraping them clean. Several models are available. The most commonly used is probably the Kelly, which has a right-angled bend in the blade at one end. The Maxant type has a hook at one end, which is useful for lifting up frames.

Some people make their own hive tools, or use equivalent tools purchased from hardware stores. The most important part of a good hive tool is its thin blade, so it can easily be inserted between boxes. It is a false economy to use an inadequate tool such as a screwdriver, which will damage the boxes and make working hives more difficult.


There are several ways of obtaining your first bees. You can purchase a nucleus colony, buy an established hive, capture a swarm, or even transfer a colony of feral (wild) bees into a hive.

If you buy a hive or nucleus colony, make sure the vendor is registered with the American foulbrood pest management strategy management agency or its contractor AsureQuality. This is a legal requirement to prevent the spread of diseased bees or beekeeping equipment. Beekeeper registration does not guarantee that the hive is healthy, so the hive should still be thoroughly checked before purchase.

Nucleus colonies

One of the best ways to start beekeeping is to purchase a nucleus colony (called a nucleus or ‘nuc’). A nucleus is a small colony of bees including a queen bee, which is housed on several standard frames (often four). Nucleus colonies have the advantage that only a small unit has to be dealt with at first, and your confidence can grow as the colony expands.

It is best to start with at least two nucleus colonies as an insurance against one queen failing. If this happens you can unite the hives or swap brood between them.

Fig.2.2 Transferring a nucleus to a full-sized box.

Nucs may be obtained from a local beekeeper or from a queen bee producer. A nucleus colony usually comes without a hive, and must be transferred to your own equipment from the wooden or cardboard nuc box it came in. This is easy to do provided the following basic steps are taken.

When the nuc box arrives, put it in a cool, airy, dark place for an hour or so to let the bees settle down. Meanwhile place a prepared hive, with a feeder and enough frames to fill the box when the nucleus is installed, on its permanent stand.

The best time to hive a nucleus is late afternoon or early evening, so the bees will settle down without much flying. Carry the nucleus to the permanent hive. Take the frames out of the prepared hive. Puff smoke gently over the bees in the nuc to quieten them. Then lift the frames out of the nucleus one at a time, with the bees attached, and place them together next to the feeder in the new hive. Brush or shake any bees remaining in the nucleus box at the entrance of the hive, and place the remaining frames of foundation or combs in the hive. Half-fill the feeder with thick sugar syrup (two parts by weight of sugar to one part of water), and replace the hive mat and lid.

When all the bees are inside the hive, place a block of wood across the front to reduce the width of the entrance to about 50–75mm. Keep this block in place until the colony has increased in population and occupied more combs in the brood chamber. Depending on the strength of the colony and the seasonal conditions, the entrance may be gradually widened to its full size.

If there is any danger of robbing at the time you introduce your nucleus colony, once most of the bees are inside your hive place green grass loosely in the entrance. The grass will deter robbers, and it will wilt in a day or so and slowly release the bees. Alternatively, you can return the next day and remove the grass.

Continue feeding with the sugar and water solution at weekly intervals if the weather is cool or wet, but feeding can be stopped as soon as the bees are able to gather enough nectar from natural sources.

Don’t feed more syrup than the bees are able to take up and store overnight. Any surplus in the feeder may attract robber bees, with fatal results to the nucleus colony. Feed in the evening and be very careful not to spill any syrup around the hive. When the bees are well established and there is a continuous nectar flow, the feeder can be shifted to one side of the brood box, and later removed and reinstalled in the second brood box when this is added. Frame feeders should be replaced by a frame of drawn comb if possible, or comb foundation if no drawn comb is available. to one side of the brood box, and later removed and reinstalled in the second brood box when this is added. Frame feeders should be replaced by a frame of drawn comb if possible, or comb foundation if no drawn comb is available.

Fig.2.3 Buying established hives is the fastest way to start beekeeping.

Once the bees occupy all the frames, you should add a second brood box.

Established hives

Buying established hives is a simple method of starting beekeeping, and is a faster way to get surplus honey. While there is not a steady trade in beehive sales, advertising in a local newspaper, beekeeping journal or online trading site may help you to find a vendor.

As with nucs, it is best to start with at least two hives as an insurance against one queen failing. If this happens you can unite the colonies or swap brood between them. Having more than one hive also enables comparisons to be made, but it’s prudent to not keep more than four or five hives until you have gained a full season’s experience.

A beehive in good condition should have:

  • plenty of bees covering most of the combs in the brood boxes (usually two)
  • plenty of brood (except in winter), and honey and pollen stores
  • no American foulbrood disease (AFB)
  • good-quality combs (mostly worker comb)
  • sound woodware of standard dimensions.

Go through the hive and examine it carefully, preferably with an experienced beekeeper.


Honey bee colonies reproduce and disperse naturally by swarming. Particularly in spring, swarms containing thousands of worker bees and a queen (usually the colony’s old one) leave hives looking for new nesting sites. There is another type of swarm. Absconding swarms in the summer and autumn—when much of a colony’s population leave the hive—are a new phenomenon now that varroa is established in New Zealand. These swarms are a liability as they are usually infested with varroa, are often small in size and will struggle to survive over winter.

Capturing swarms is a cheap and usually simple way of starting new colonies, although it does have drawbacks. Swarms may carry varroa and spores of American foulbrood, and you cannot tell this by simply looking at a swarm. Because of the risk of American foulbrood, swarms are best hived in old hive parts, and located in a separate apiary away from other hives for the first season. A further drawback is that swarms usually contain a colony’s old queen, and so will need to be requeened during the first summer. They should be treated for varroa as well.

Late-summer swarms are difficult to overwinter. Any swarm after January that is smaller than a soccer ball will rarely survive the winter unless united with another colony.

Capturing a swarm

If someone tells you about the location of a swarm, check with the property occupier before setting out to ensure it is still there. Swarms may cluster in a spot for only a few hours, or they may stay for days.

Fig.2.4 A swarm ready for collection.

The most co-operative swarms will settle on a low branch of an accessible bush or tree. Capturing them can be simple, but remember it is not true that swarming bees never sting. Swarms are usually gentle but some can be aggressive, particularly if they have been clustering for several days.

Place a large cardboard box under the swarm and as close to it as possible, and give the branch a sharp knock. As soon as the bees have fallen into the box, replace the lid or put a sack over the top. The bees may then be taken to their new location and left in a shady spot until evening, when they can be hived. If, on the other hand, a lot of bees are flying around after the swarm has been knocked into the box, leave the box partly open on the ground near the clustering site and wait until evening to move it.

Instead of a cardboard box, you can use a hive box, a plastic bucket with a ventilated lid or even a sack made of woven synthetic material as a receptacle for the swarm. Don’t use a plastic bag as the bees will suffocate. Buckets are handy if you are working up a ladder.

If your swarm is clustered in an inconvenient place, such as on a post or on the walls or eaves of a building, hold the container close to the swarm and beneath it. Use a bee brush or a flat piece of wood to scrape the bees into the container. Partially cover the container and put it on the ground nearby. Any bees still on the clustering site should be brushed onto the ground near the container. If the flying bees enter the box, the queen is inside too. The box should be left until evening, and then moved to its new location.

Fig.2.5 A swarm enters its new home in a beehive.

If the queen is not in the container, most of the flying bees will return to the clustering site. In rare cases half the bees will stay in the container, and the other half will return to the clustering site—this usually indicates that more than one queen is in the swarm. If the bees behave in either way, the whole capturing process must be repeated until it is successful.

Hiving a swarm

The best time to hive a swarm is late afternoon or early evening, as the bees are less likely to leave the hive or annoy neighbours with orientation flights.

Prepare a single-storey hive with eight or nine frames and a frame feeder, and put it in the new hive’s permanent location. If you are using a top feeder, fill the box with up to 10 frames. Use old combs if available, because of the risk of American foulbrood—a colony that later exhibits symptoms of this disease will have to be burnt, along with the hive.

Fig.2.6 Using a bait colony to capture bees from a feral colony established in a cavity.

Place a wooden ramp or a sack up to the landing board so the bees can enter the hive easily. Dump the container of bees on the ramp with a short, sharp jerk. The bees will very soon move into the hive in a continuous stream, in what must be one of the most spectacular sights in beekeeping. Sometimes the queen can be spotted amongst the workers as she marches in.

If there is no nectar to be gathered, you will need to feed the swarm. A large swarm (say twice the size of a soccer ball) that is hived at the beginning of the main honey flow will usually store a surplus of honey.

Feral or wild colonies

Hives may also be started from feral (wild) colonies. The job of transferring bees and combs from somewhere like a wall lining to a standard beehive is difficult and messy, but some new beekeepers are prepared to do it. Feral hives can also harbour American foulbrood, so if a feral colony is not wanted for starting a new hive it should always be destroyed.

The best time to hive a feral colony is in spring, as the bee population is low and the nest contains a minimum of honey. In summer or autumn the operation can be a lot messier as the opposite is true, and robbing will often start once honey is exposed.

There are two ways of removing bees from feral colonies: either the bees only are taken, or the whole colony is salvaged.

If the whole colony is to be removed, first prepare a hive with some frames containing foundation, and some frames that have no wire or foundation. Place the hive as close to the feral colony as possible. Next open up the feral colony’s nest and expose the bee combs. Before taking any further action, examine the brood carefully for signs of American foulbrood. If this disease is present, the combs and bees must be destroyed and the incident reported to the American foulbrood pest management agency or AsureQuality. If the colony is disease-free, it may be salvaged.

Honey combs can simply be shaken free of bees and put into a large plastic bag, and later eaten as comb honey or squeezed to give liquid honey. In some areas there is a danger that wild honey may contain toxins from the tutu plant, so in these areas the honey should be used inside the new hive for feed or destroyed (see Chapter 20).

Cut the brood combs to size and fit them to unwired frames. It is best to tie them in place with string made from natural fibre, as this will be removed by the bees as they fix the combs in place with wax. Put the frames containing brood comb into the hive, along with as many bees as can be scraped or brushed in. Fill up the rest of the box with frames of foundation and replace the lid.

The cavity formerly occupied by the bees should be scraped clean of wax and honey, scrubbed with water and a strong-smelling disinfectant, then dusted with an insecticide powder and thoroughly sealed. This is necessary to stop another swarm being attracted into the same cavity by the smell of beeswax and honey. Expanding foam aerosols, fibreglass ceiling insulation or sheep’s wool can be used to block large entrances to cavities.

When the bees have clustered in their new hive that night, remove them at least 5km away to stop the flying bees returning to their previous home. Requeen the colony in the first season after transfer, and cull the old combs after new ones have been filled.

A simpler method is to remove the flying bees only, and use them to boost the strength of an existing small colony. Place a one-way trap over the nest entrance, such as a gauze cone about 250–300mm long with an entrance just large enough for a bee to crawl through (Fig.2.6). Put a bait colony very close by. Foraging bees can leave the feral colony but cannot re-enter through the trap, so over a period of several weeks they will join the bait colony and the feral colony will dwindle away.

Though an easier method, this technique has drawbacks:

  • no check for American foulbrood is possible
  • it is successful only if all alternative entrances can be blocked
  • unless the nest cavity is later cleaned out or thoroughly closed off, it is likely to be used in the future by another swarm
  • remaining honey may ferment, creating off-odours and sometimes a sticky mess.

If you are planning to remove a feral colony from somebody else’s property, be sure to have the permission of both the property occupier and the owner if they are different people. Before you begin work have a clear understanding of whose responsibility it is to repair any damage done.

Package bees

A package of bees is like a nucleus colony without the frames, and consists of a quantity of bees (often 1–1.5kg) and a queen. Packages are not very common in New Zealand, but are included here in case beekeepers can source them.

Packages are similar to nucleus colonies in that they must be housed in assembled hive equipment, and they should be obtained in spring to allow enough time to build up in strength before winter. They are much less effective than nucleus colonies though, because they contain no brood so take much longer to build up in size.

When a package arrives, place it in a cool, dark place for an hour or so until the bees settle down. As with a nucleus colony, you will need to have prepared a hive on its new site. It should have an entrance reducer on and be fitted with a feeder.

Choose late afternoon or early evening for hiving a package. Remove three frames from the middle of the hive. Take the queen cage and feed can out of the package, and quickly dump the bees into the hive. Bees adhering to the inside of the mesh can be dislodged by banging the solid corner of the package container on the ground, and then pouring the dislodged bees out the feeder hole. Once the bees are in the hive, carefully replace the three frames.

Expose the white candy in the queen cage by removing the plastic cover and wedge the cage between the two middle frames in the hive, at about the centre of the frames. The exit hole in the candy end should be slightly uphill, so if any attendants die after the cage is introduced they don’t roll down and block it. If there is mesh on one side of the cage only, put that face-downward so that any honey running down the comb doesn’t enter the cage and cover the queen. Replace the hive lid. Leave the empty package lying just outside the entrance overnight, to allow stray bees to enter the hive.

After a week make a very brief visit to see if the queen is laying. Replenish the feeder, but otherwise don’t disturb the colony. Make a second visit after another week to check there is adequate food.


A well-sited apiary is one that suits the bees and the beekeeper, and doesn’t inconvenience neighbours or passers-by. Where apiaries are located, and how far apart they must be, are questions that should be sorted out by beekeepers and landowners together. In general, apiaries of more than about five hives are located at least 1.5km apart.

In some built-up areas beekeeping is subject to council bylaws. If you intend to keep bees in an urban area, first find out if your local council imposes any restrictions. Some councils require you to register your apiary. They may have the power to decide if your location is suitable for beekeeping, and may charge an annual fee for this. They may also require you to get the written permission of all your neighbours first. Local bodies without specific beekeeping bylaws still have power to act against beekeepers if necessary, under general nuisance provisions in relevant legislation.

If there are no local bylaws regulating beekeeping, good hive management and public relations will help this fortunate state of affairs to continue.

Honey produced in the North Island and northern regions of the South Island and offered for sale (including barter) or export is subject to regulations designed to minimise the risk of the toxin tutin being included in the honey. See Chapter 20 for details on what you must do if you keep hives in these areas.


Choosing where to site an apiary is one of the beekeeper’s most important tasks, particularly as the location can have far-reaching effects on the honey crop produced. Too often honey bee colonies are simply placed close to a particular nectar source, and little thought is given to other factors.


It is essential to obtain the permission of both the land owner and occupier.

Apiary sites on farms should be arranged in full consultation with the farmer. Discussions should include any plans for future use of the land, as it is difficult to gain access to hives across paddocks that have been shut up for hay or cultivated for a crop. Farmers will also know of flood-prone spots. Ensure that farmers have your name, address and phone numbers, so they can contact you if hives are damaged by stock, storms or vandals. Farmers will also want to warn you of hazards on their property.

Fig.2.7 A sheltered domestic apiary.

Special permits may be required to site hives on land administered by forestry companies or by government agencies. Sometimes beekeeping rights on forestry land are tendered for, but purchasing hives on such property does not necessarily guarantee continued rights to the site.


Protection from prevailing winds is essential. Hives should be located in the lee of patches of bush, shelter belts, stop banks or whatever shelter can be found in the area. If there is none, either put up artificial shelter or plant some quick-growing shelter trees. You must also be prepared to trim hedges yourself if your hives prevent access by contractors.

Although apiary sites should be sheltered, they should not be at the bottom of deep gullies where access can be difficult and cold, damp air will lie. Some air drainage is essential, to prevent dampness in hives and rotting of hive woodware.


Apiaries should receive as much sunlight as possible, especially in the morning as hives that don’t receive sun until the middle of the day miss out on a lot of potential foraging time. Take particular care to ensure that sites are not shaded in winter when the sun is at its lowest. Hive entrances usually face north, but this is not critical.

Food sources

For bees to produce surplus honey the apiary must be within flying range of good nectar and pollen sources. Bees will fly several kilometres from the hive, although foraging is more efficient if hives are close to food sources. The availability of spring forage is also important, as early nectar sources will result in better colony development and will reduce the need for costly sugar feeding.

Fig.2.8 Take care to locate your apiary where it won’t be flooded.

Pollen substitutes are available but can be expensive to buy and feed. Adequate sources of pollen near an apiary are vital.


A common mistake among domestic beekeepers is to locate hives without giving thought to access. Hives on garage roofs or on steep banks may look good, but harvesting full honey boxes from such positions is difficult, and often dangerous.

Make sure you can at least take a wheelbarrow to all your apiaries, and that out-apiaries have vehicle access for most of the year. It could be costly if you are cut off from a site for several weeks at a critical time.

To reduce the risk of vandalism or theft it is sensible to conceal apiaries from public roads. This can usually be achieved without going to the most remote spot on the farm.

Some new beekeepers with access to a lot of land often feel they need to spread their hives singly or in small groups all over the property. This makes access and servicing the hives quite difficult and slow. Remember that bees fly over gates and rivers more quickly and easily than you can drive through them, so site out-apiaries as conveniently as possible and put the bees in only one or two locations.

Arranging hives

The way hives are set out on a site affects how easily you can manage them, and how easily the bees can find their particular hive. Good layout of hives within an apiary can make for much more efficient management. The layout chosen will be determined by factors such as the size and shape of the site, the type of vehicle used, and whether the site has to be fenced to prevent stock damage.

Hives are best placed in twos or fours, with a good 1.5 to two metres to the next group of two or four. If stock have access to the apiary, groups of two, and especially four, hives can offer some support to each other. A suitable space between the groups means you can work from the side of the hives and have room to put supers beside them. Hives jammed together are very difficult to work, and hard on the back as well.

The number of hives in an apiary is influenced by the nectar and pollen sources in the area, and how many colonies these food sources can support in the poorest part of the season. This is hard to determine though, and in practice the number of hives in a site also depends on the type of vehicle a beekeeper uses, the number of people working the hives and individual preference.

Most beekeepers find 15–25 hives enough on one site—by the time these have been inspected, the bees may have begun robbing, and the beekeeper will need a rest. Commercial beekeepers’ crews will work apiaries of 30–35 hives, and in South Island beech honeydew areas, apiaries can contain hundreds of hives.

You also need to place hives so bees can easily find them. Traditionally beekeepers placed hives in straight rows. This layout looks neat and is easy to work, but it confuses the bees. They become disorientated and return to the wrong hives—a process called drifting.

Drifting follows certain patterns. If hives are placed in straight rows, bees drift to the ends of rows. Where two or more rows are used, the front row collects bees at the expense of hives in the rear.

Heavy drifting means that some hives may become so depleted of worker bees that they gather little surplus honey, while others become overcrowded and may swarm. Apiary management is made more difficult, as each hive must be treated individually rather than all hives in an apiary dealt with in a similar way. Selection of breeding stock based on honey production records is not reliable in apiaries where there is a lot of drifting. Drifting bees will also fight when there is no nectar flow.

You can minimise drifting by:

  • arranging hives in irregular patterns, or at least with entrances facing different directions (Fig.2.9)
  • painting hive boxes different colours
  • leaving some landmarks, such as bushes, in an apiary.

Fig.2.9 A commercial apiary set out in a way that minimises the drifting of bees between hives.


Every place where bees are kept is called an apiary, and all apiaries must be registered with the management agency for the American foulbrood pest management strategy, or its contractor AsureQuality. An apiary must be registered if beehives have been placed there for more than 30 consecutive days, even if only one hive is involved. Registration assists with the management agency’s programme to control American foulbrood, and also with MAF Biosecurity New Zealand’s programmes to prevent the establishment of exotic pests and diseases.

All apiaries must be identified with the code number allocated when the beekeeper first registers, which can be placed either on a hive or on a sign in the apiary. Code numbers help in the identification of the apiary owner.

See Chapter 20 for more information about apiary registration.


Please consider others when you keep bees, and help to give beekeeping a good name. Don’t put hives close to roads where bees may annoy pedestrians or passing motorists. On farms take every care not to interfere with farmers’ activities—it is after all their property.

The main complaints about beekeeping in urban areas are:

  • bee droppings soiling houses, cars and laundry (especially in spring)
  • swarms settling on private property
  • people being stung or buzzed by bees when hives are disturbed, or when robbing starts
  • bee flight paths through neighbouring properties
  • bees collecting water from taps, swimming pools or washing.

Almost always the beekeeper is at fault. There are a dozen basic rules for good beekeeping in urban areas:

  • Keep no more than two or three hives on a residential section.
  • Position your hives so they don’t become troublesome. They should be in a sunny, sheltered spot that cannot be seen by neighbours—most people don’t worry about what they can’t see. Don’t place hives close to your neighbour’s house or driveway, or near frequently used areas such as vegetable gardens or clotheslines.
  • Force bees to fly at least 2m high as soon as they leave their hives, by placing the hive entrance within a few metres of a screen such as a fence, trellis or hedge. This keeps the bees flying above human head height and so helps to prevent ‘buzzing’.
  • If the bees do establish flight patterns that are a nuisance, you will have to act at once. One option is to remove the hives at least 5km for three to four weeks or so before returning them to the original site, so that the foraging bees are new ones unfamiliar to the area. The period of exile will need to be longer in winter. Another option is to leave the hives on-site but rotate them through 180° one night, and block the entrances loosely with grass. This may force the establishment of new ‘bee lines’. Hives can also be relocated on a section by moving them all together, but no more than 1–2m each day.
  • Provide water within several metres of the hive if no natural sources are available. This will reduce visits by your thirsty bees to neighbours’ swimming pools, wet washing and dripping taps. Provide water by letting a tap drip very slowly on to sandy soil, or leaving a container full of regularly-changed water. Open water must have suitable floats (e.g. wood shavings, polystyrene blocks, or an aquarium plant) for the bees to land on.
  • Keep a gentle strain of bee in every hive. Pure strains of yellow or leather-coloured Italian bees are the best in New Zealand conditions. The Carniolan strain can also be very gentle, although since the bees are black in colour they may appear more alarming to the public than the Italian strain. Carniolans also swarm more often. All queen bee producers supply gentle strains of bees for hobbyist beekeepers. Requeen temperamental hives promptly, especially ones that have requeened themselves, and requeen all hives every one or two years.
  • Work bees only during the warmest part of the day. Bees are quietest during a nectar flow and a period of fine, warm weather.
  • Once you can handle your bees with confidence, try not to wear gloves while working hives in towns or cities. Stings on the hands are easily removed and the pain quickly passes. Stings on gloves, however, are not felt and the scent associated with the sting encourages other bees to sting. You won’t feel the stings, but neighbours might. Perhaps more importantly, working barehanded teaches you how to use the smoker properly.
  • Practise proper swarm prevention techniques.
  • Don’t allow bees to start robbing exposed honey or sugar syrup. Feed syrup and put wet (sticky) honey boxes on hives only in the late evening.
  • Be a good beekeeping neighbour. Collect any swarms quickly, after first advising others (especially children) not to interfere with the swarm.
  • Stress the value of bees in pollinating fruit trees in the neighbourhood, and share some of your honey crop with those living nearby.

Try to begin your beekeeping on the right footing, with quality protective clothing and bees that will enable your hobby to get off to a good start. Select apiary sites that give bees easy access to nectar and pollen, and that allow you to manage the hives easily and without inconvenience to others. Time spent getting things right now will save inconvenience or beekeeping failure later on.