The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Honey Bee Biology

Finding Apiaries from Above using Google Maps (Part One)

- July 1, 2017 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

finding apiaries using google maps

Good apiary sites seem to be more difficult to find, at least in my area. The most important consideration is, of course, plenty of forage–both in the main spring nectar flow and the flow. If possible, some nectar dribbling in during the summer dearth would be good too. A variety of pollen plants is important as well, beginning in early spring, and ending in the fall.

Do not think excellent bee management can overcome an apiary location that is deficient in nectar and pollen plants. Bees cannot make honey from suburban yards packed tight with pretty green grass or vast monocultures of pine trees replacing natural forests or logged-out land appearing like a desolate moonscape. Concrete and asphalt by the square mile are typically places to avoid too, unless ornamental bee forage can compensate. Some urban apiaries prosper quite well from plantings of flowers and trees that yield copious nectar and pollen. When I had apiaries in Raleigh, North Carolina near North Carolina State University, the diversity of flowers kept my bees working while my rural apiaries languished in the summer heat.

When hunting apiary sites the old way, out on the rural roads, driving around in unfamiliar places, one only had a sense of the bee forage from the road. The land’s interior could be vastly different in nectar and pollen plants. Usually that interior land remained completely unknown with all the expected no-trespassing signs and locked gates. It would be like trying to predict what was on a pizza by only knowing its crusty edge, an endeavor misleading from the beginning.

Now with Google maps, beekeepers can see the interior vegetation of that land from above and at least avoid areas largely devoid of bee forage. In addition, we can see the possible bee forage around our existing apiaries. We can estimate the straight-line distance between apiaries while seeing the intervening bee forage. Taking a large-scale view of one’s out-apiaries, beekeepers can even see how to fit new apiaries near established ones, taking into account the local vegetation. The expansion of new out-apiaries can avoid areas seemingly deficient in bee forage while extending into regions showing promise for increased nectar and pollen plants.

When using tools like Google maps, first understand that different web browsers (Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari, etc.), could have different keyboard commands, including different mouse and track-pad gestures for changing the maps. Also the internet connection, whether it is from a computer or mobile device, could alter the input of commands. To begin, we need to start the software and become oriented to familiar local landmarks.

From a browser’s search bar, type or search for “google maps” and go to their home page. The software always wants to give me driving directions, which is not the aim of this application. The map may be set to a location from the previous use; if not, the map probably shows the United States. I leave the view in map view (like a road map). To zoom out (go higher), click the minus button at the lower right corner of the map. To zoom in (go lower), click the plus button at the lower right corner. Zoom in or out until the view looks like you are seeing a small map of your state. (The mouse or track pad controls can zoom too.) Notice the little yellow scale line down in the right corner of the map. The scale line tells how much distance on the screen translates into a measurement in feet (or miles). As you zoom in and out, the scale line changes.

Holding the mouse down, drag your home’s location to the middle of the screen and zoom in closer. In the lower left corner of the map, click the square labeled Satellite. The view changes like seeing the land from a low flying plane. Zoom down and look for local landmarks. Orient to them. Find your dwelling, which probably has your home apiary. From there, you can move to other locations like you would drive along the roads to future apiary sites. From those locations, the beekeeper can study possible bee forage and potential difficulties of tentative apiary locations.

Across the United States, vastly different ecosystems show up on the maps. Without leaving my house in Virginia, I have “scouted” apiary sites in the arid Southwest. Since I have never kept bees in those ecosystems, places drastically different from the East coast, I cannot tell a good apiary site using a satellite view over, say, Arizona. Therefore, given your local situation, expect some regional learning. Spend some time seeing the features of your local lands. Take screen shots (so that the computer or iPhone takes a picture of its screen). Keep them in a folder as reference photographs (like the ones I will show here).

For this article, I show below introductory examples from Piedmont Virginia. While it is tempting to seek a general rule to tell if a map shows a good or poor apiary site, so far I have found the predictions have been too complicated. Whatever guidelines I describe, there are probably counter examples.

When out searching for new apiary sites, I am almost “programmed” from birth to find Tulip Poplar trees, one of our main nectar trees for the spring. Of course, I can identify the tree in the spring, when lush and green, full of flowers and leaves. I also hunt apiary sites in the winter. I can spot Tulip Poplars in the cold and snow, even from across a huge field, by its bare branches. (The tree has a characteristic pointed shape.) Driving on the highway, a big log truck, loaded with trees, rushes by the other way. I can tell it is a load of Tulip Poplars by just a glance, the tree bark passing by mostly in a blur. (The bark is different from oak, pine, and gumball trees.)

In a satellite view, seeing Tulip Poplars is quite limited. I figure roughly the Tulip Poplars will be among other deciduous trees (trees that become leafless in the winter). As best as I can tell, deciduous trees appear as in Figure 1 (Google Maps, 2017) when the picture was taken in the warm months, or as …

Photo Caption

Figure 1. Mostly deciduous trees during the warm months. As a rough approximation, deciduous trees appear broader and brighter. Pine trees appear “finer” and a duller dark green, although that probably does not characterize all of them. Orange arrows point to the more prominent deciduous trees. Purple arrows indicate some of the interspersed pine trees. As a check, I found this place and located the pine tree shown by the far right purple arrow and the deciduous trees beside that pine tree. While I would include this deciduous forest as having possible Tulip Poplar trees, in fact I think, there were not very many. Soon I’ll know for sure. Recently this section of woods was clear cut, logged until nothing was left standing. In a couple years, the Tulip Poplars will sprout back quickly from their old stumps. Then it is easy to count the lost trees, and even to estimate the gallons of lost nectar.