“Three Feet Or Three Miles”: these five short words enshrine a golden rule of beekeeping. Maybe it is the hypnotic repetition of “three”, or the dramatic difference in scale between three feet (one yard) and three miles (5280 yards), or possibly the fateful choice hingeing on the tiny word “or“, which imbues this incantation with its mysterious, poetic charm.
But its meaning remains enigmatic until it is revealed as the shorthand version of an exhortation to the beekeeping faithful that: “Thou shalt not move a bee-hive more than three feet, nay, verily, nor less than three miles. No way. Or else.”
Why not ? The simple fact is that, if you move a hive by less than 3 feet, the flying bees will first return to the the exact spot of the old location, engage in a brief period of head-scratching but will soon figure out the new site nearby because of its proximity (as well as its familiar smell and appearance). The bee-brain allows for a certain amount of movement in its habitat – but not much. That’s the way the natural world behaves. All well and good.
Now, move a bee hive more than 3 feet, and less than 3 miles, and the bees will return to the precise and original location of the hive and become increasingly dis-orientated by the disappearance of their home. And they will quite possibly stay there until they perish of hunger and exposure, with their on-board sat nav insisting this is indeed their hive site, even if there is no hive to be seen or scented in the vicinity. In desperation, the homeless foragers may offer their nectar- and pollen-loads as the price of admission to an unfamiliar honeybee colony nearby. But in either case, the hive which has been moved will be deprived of its foraging bees and will soon be dangerously short of food. Not good. Between that 1 yard and the next 5280 yards exist 5279 yards of deadly danger for a beehive in transit.
And if you move a bee-colony 3 miles or more, the good news is that the bees will not recognise any of their former flight lines and will not attempt to follow them back to their hive (simply because 3 miles is the range for a foraging bee to travel to collect pollen or nectar and still offer a net positive energy income to the hive). So bees live in blissful ignorance of what lies beyond that 3-mile radius of their own hive and have no signposts to guide them back to the original site once moved more than 3 miles. They will settle in their new apiary location and happily get on with life.
So there you are. The commandment is: “Three feet or three miles”.
This being beekeeping, of course, there are exceptions to every rule: in deepest winter, hives can be moved between 3 feet and 3 miles. The clustered bees will not remember their previous map reference after a few days’ detention in the hive and will thoroughly orientate themselves at the new location when Spring arrives, dipping and bobbing at the hive entrance, before embarking on a forage trip.
Or you can move a hive a little every day or so, so that the bees drift along as the hive edges towards to its new position. Like grandmother’s footsteps.
Also, a swarm of bees can be rehoused in the same apiary from which the swarm has issued, since the act of swarming wipes clean the bees’ sense of location. No surprise – it‘s where they’re going next which matters to a swarm, not where they’ve just come from.
So now you know. Go on, bamboozle your friends with: “Three feet or three miles”. And, a word to the wise, I’ve found that that the metric version : “A metre, or 5K” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.