How many colonies will an apiary support?
A regular question in beekeeping is "How many hives can I have in an apiary"? There is no sensible answer because it depends on a lot of things including:-
I have seen some estimates of the maximum number of colonies that should be kept in one apiary, without thinking about any of the above. The number you can keep in one area is determined by conditions, not punching a few figures into a calculator. I have seen a figure as low as seven colonies per apiary being a maximum. This might suit an amateur beekeeper, but quite frankly if a district is that poor then an alternative site should be sought if you want more colonies.
There is no doubt in my mind that districts change and sometimes bees a short distance away do far better. The person who influenced by beekeeping in my early years was a man called George Wakeford, who looked after over 400 colonies of bees for other people in a fairly small area of West Sussex. These were mainly people who had 3 colonies or less. He always said that honey production in Wisborough Green village was very poor, yet was good a mile away in any direction, something I can verify as I visited them all with George. I can remember at least 11 "bee owners" in Wisborough Green, including George, with a total of no more than 30 colonies. There were about the same number of "bee owners" and colonies on the outskirts, yet their yields were much higher. Forty years later the yields in Wisborough Green village are as good as anywhere else. The above story shows me that bees do not always fly one and a half miles as is popularly thought.
I keep hearing that things aren't what they used to be, but I think that is probably a red herring. When I started beekeeping in 1963 the average yield per colony in my area of West Sussex was about 30lb per colony. In 2014 it is double that at around 60lb per colony. In the 1970s and 1980s it was around 100lb.
The number of colonies an apiary will sustain varies considerably and depends on the crops that are grown by farmers and the wild forage available. The beekeeper must make their own mind up what is productive and what isn't. In some years one apiary will do better than another, the following year it may be the reverse.
When I kept many more colonies than I do now I had 18-20 fully productive colonies in each apiary, plus a few nucs. They all did well and I may have got away with more. Brother Adam reckoned on 40 colonies in his apiaries on Exmoor and R.O.B. Manley, who was the first man in the U.K. to manage 1,000 colonies had up to 50 colonies in his apiaries in the Chilterns. Both these two worked for maximum honey production, so had no passengers, and they had large prolific colonies. If they had as few as seven colonies in an apiary as has been suggested they would have spent more time travelling than managing bees. The ordinary amateur has nothing to worry about.