14 min read

All change

Spring has sprung. Everything is a bit earlier and a lot wetter than last year. Colonies are looking good and the OSR is starting to flower. Some thoughts of spring 'dead outs', moving hives, phenology and copyright.
Oil seed rape | Photo by Ole Thomsen
Oil seed rape / Photo by Ole Thomsen

This is an exciting time in the beekeeping season. So much potential ... no dispiriting setbacks yet, no failed lime harvest or laying workers.

Everything to play for 😀.

The long winter wait is - or will shortly be - over, and the season proper will begin. Depending upon your latitude, things may have started a month ago, or you can expect them to ... soon.

Though perhaps not quite as soon as you would like.

Here in Scotland, we accept that part of the quid pro quo for living in this beautiful country is that we don't have three supers on every hive by mid-March.

Or sometimes, ever.

It's tough watching the Twitterati busily bragging about their teetering hives, bloated supers or April queen rearing, while we struggle with 7°C and yet more rain.

Nevertheless, eventually things get going and - within a week or two - apiary visits go from casual, make-work trips, interspersed with tea and tinkering in the shed, to military-type manoeuvres involving logistics, long days, heavy lifting and a shopping-list of 'must do' activities.

And, knowing that, it's just about now that you realise you've not built enough frames this winter, or ordered sufficient foundation, or - cue the sombre music - ever checked that the hive entrances were clear.

If you keep livestock, you'll have dead stock

Beekeeping is a seasonal activity, with lots to do in the spring and summer months. However, although the late autumn and winter are less busy, there is still work that needs doing.

And that includes regular hive checks ...

Some beekeepers, on checking their colonies in March or early April, will be disappointed.

That strong colony last autumn is now silent, or only has a handful or two of old, dark, knackered and profoundly depressed-looking bees in it.

Once a couple of frames are pulled out, or the brood box is prised off the floor, the reason becomes clear. The entrance is blocked with corpses, so any surviving bees were trapped, unable to make early-season cleansing flights. You'll often find signs of Nosema, with the top bars of frames and the side-walls of the brood box stained with bee faeces.

Even if the entrances are completely clear, the colony can still be moribund.


Dying like flies

With little or no brood rearing in the coldest months of the year, the population of adult workers - the winter bees - inevitably dwindles.

The rate at which they die off is directly related to the health of the colony (and probably will not be at a fixed rate that I've illustrated).

Adult bee numbers and corpse accumulation (fictitious data)

The graph above shows two colonies. The data is completely made up, but the numbers are broadly representative of what might be expected.

Both colonies enter November with an adult bee population of 20,000. Brood rearing has stopped, and won't start again until after the winter solstice ... even then, it's at a low level, and I've ignored it altogether {{1}}.

It's worth emphasising that there is compelling scientific evidence that strong colonies - in late autumn, not high summer - overwinter better than weak colonies.

The danger zone

The healthy colony experiences a 4% loss of adult bees per week. The 'unhealthy' colony suffers double that loss ... largely because 'unhealthy' usually means elevated levels of Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV). High levels of DWV are known to reduce the longevity of bees.

By the end of the year, the worker population in the unhealthy colony has dropped below 10,000, a figure not breached in the healthy colony until early/mid-February (by which time they will be rearing brood).

If the worker population drops below a viability threshold - labelled in the graph above as 'The danger zone' - the colony cannot, or may not, survive.

The precise level of this viability threshold is going to depend upon the weather, the hive insulation and a bunch of other factors {{2}}. I've plotted it at 6,000, but it could be more or less than that depending upon the conditions.

This threshold should be viewed as colony viability, not that of individual bees.

Some bees may well live on until March, April or even May - those "old, dark, knackered and profoundly depressed-looking bees" - but the colony is effectively dead. There are too few workers to maintain a sufficiently high temperature in the brood nest (34°C) to rear new brood, at least at a meaningful rate.

In contrast, the 'healthy' colony retains sufficient workers that new brood can be reared. Of course, the old winter bees continue to die off, but at some point the emerging brood outstrips these losses (changeover day) and the total adult bee population therefore increases; the cycle starts all over again, and they'll be thinking of swarming in 6 weeks time!

Bring out your dead

If the weather is consistently poor, the bees cannot get out on cleansing flights, and the undertaker bees - there are such things - are unable to remove the corpses that have accumulated over the previous days and nights.

The dotted lines on the graph above indicate the numbers of corpses that would be generated in a 6- to 7-week period {{3}}. Assuming the hive floor was clear at the end of the year - and it might not be - a prolonged cold spell could result in the accumulation of ~4,000 dead bees, more than sufficient to block the hive entrance.

Blocked hive entrance
Blocked hive entrance in early April ... and nothing like 4,000 corpses

With no exit from the hive, workers are forced to defaecate inside, leading to disease transmission ... and yet more corpses.

I suspect that some of the external triggers that stimulate brood rearing - the early season pollen and nectar - also don't happen (because the entrance is blocked), meaning that colony development is at best delayed or, at worse, doomed.

Although I have dismally failed to calculate the volume of a dead bee {{4}}, my back of an envelope calculations guesstimates suggest that 4,000 corpses would produce a 1-2 cm deep layer covering a National floor.

None of this is any consolation if you've recently opened your hive and found a large pile of mouldy corpses.

However, understanding what went wrong might help next winter.

Kewl floors

My preferred Kewl floors have an L-shaped entrance, negating the need for mouseguards and providing better protection against wasps and robbing bees in late summer.

Bent piece of wire
Patented Kewl hive entrance unbocker (actually a bicycle spoke)

However, they do have a slightly increased tendency to get blocked in the winter, so I am assiduous in checking the entrances regularly.

Mouseguards can also restrict the exit of corpse-carrying undertakers (particularly if they are fitted upside down), so again the entrances need checking and clearing.

Failed queens

Another reason you might find a small cluster of "old, dark, knackered and profoundly depressed-looking bees" when you open the hive in early Spring is because the queen failed.

Everything looked good at the end of last summer ... but at some point in the autumn or winter the queen ran out of sperm, or just stopped laying and never restarted.

Sometimes you'll find a drone laying queen, other times you find a non-laying queen, and rarely you'll find no queen at all.

Typically, the colony will be a lot less active than those around it that are queenright.

Interestingly, I don't remember ever finding laying workers in a colony with a queen that failed overwinter. Winter bees have high levels of vitellogenin (Vg), a characteristic also seen in laying workers, so perhaps it is other features of the physiology of winter bees that prevents egg laying by workers. It's possible that activity also requires a nectar and pollen stimulus.

Or perhaps I've just not looked in enough failed hives in early Spring?

My own losses this year all appear to be failed queens. All are on the West Coast where the summer last year was rubbish, particularly during the 6- to 7-week window my queens were supposed to be getting mated. It's only a small number of hives, but still disappointing.

In contrast, on the East Coast, the colonies have all come through the winter very strong ... which, in itself, has caused a few issues (see below).

All change

Our winter has been relatively mild. In my monthly 'bee checkup' trips to the East Coast I was only caught once in a blizzard crossing Rannoch Moor. Of course, the iffy weather not yet over - there's still snow on the hills, and it's a balmy 7°C and raining hard as I write.

But, even though winter may not be fully over, there are very obvious signs that it's in retreat ... and that it has been relatively mild.

Frogs were spawning here in the second week of February, the earliest I've seen by at least a week. If you compare previous years on the excellent Nature's Calendar website (despite recent changes that have made the maps more difficult to use ... hint, try Safari rather than a Chrome-based browser) you can see how this varies from year to year.

Distribution of frogspawn on 10th February 2015-2024

The animated image was produced for the same date (10th February) for the last decade. Compare 2020-21 with 2015-16 or 2019-20. I'm not sure how up-to-date the 2024 data is, as there's a lag between submitting a recording and it being verified {{5}}.

Interestingly, it might not just be temperature influencing the appearance of frogspawn. I also checked the Met Office data for the 15-16, 19-20 and 20-21 winters and there are no really obvious temperature differences.

Red throated diver
Red throated diver (loon) by David Karnå / Wikimedia Commons

The first migrant birds also appeared a bit earlier than normal. Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) are here already, there are red throated divers (Gavia stellata) on some of the hill lochs and I spotted both swallows (Hirundo rustica) and house martins (Delichon urbicum) on Monday.

It won't be long until the cuckoos arrive ...

All these phenological events indicate that things are moving apace, and this is reflected in the forage available to the bees and the state of my colonies.

All looking good

For reasons I'll get to shortly, I needed to check my colonies last weekend. This is a week or two earlier than most years. These weren't thorough colony inspections; just a quick peek to ensure that there was a laying queen present, reasonable levels of brood and sufficient stores to get them through any periods with poor weather.

All passed with flying colours.

I did little more than gently prise off the crownboard, remove the dummy board and the outer frame (noting the levels of stores remaining), and then split the brood nest approximately in half to allow me to check the two central frames.

I saw a few queens, lots of brood in all stages, no adult drones and almost no drone brood. However, I didn't check the periphery of the brood nest, so I would have missed most of the drone brood if there was any.

With one exception, the worst colonies looked much better than OK, and the best colonies looked excellent.

It was very reassuring.

The only colony I had concerns about was a little strange. Although I didn't check every frame, it had almost no sealed brood. However, the several frames I did check - I was in the middle of the brood nest and the hive contained a lot of bees - was chockablock with eggs and larvae.

It looked as though the queen had taken an extended winter break and then thought "Yikes ... I've got some catching up to do". It will be interesting to see if/when the colony catches up with the others.

Most colonies had some remaining capped stores, with many of them containing fresh nectar 😃.

Early season oil seed rape

While driving between apiaries it was clear that the oil seed rape (canola; OSR) was well advanced (and flowering) in sheltered spots, much earlier than last season. Almost certainly, this is largely due to different strains grown by the farmers. In other places the crop was still only knee-high and several weeks away from flowering.

Although I do not know whether the fresh nectar was from early OSR (there's a lot of willow about as well), the strength of the colonies and the range of development of the crop gave me hope that this could be a bumper spring.

The sugar content of OSR nectar declines during the period over which it flowers, making it progressively less attractive to the bees. In some years the OSR flowers before the bees are ready, meaning they miss the bonanza period. This year, the colonies may be strong enough and the early flowering may be over a protracted period as different strains/fields turn a dazzling yellow colour.

Nectar quality of OSR declines over the period of flowering (Enkegaard et al., 2016)

Not only does the sugar content per flower drop, but so do the number of flowers.

Strong colonies and a protracted flowering period are what is needed to maximise the crop.

And good weather ... ☀️ .

On the subject of OSR ... the only slight worry is that there appears to be less than in previous years. It's difficult to be sure without visiting every likely-looking field (or until it's all in flower), but that's the impression I have so far.

What? You don't like OSR honey? It makes excellent soft set honey and blends beautifully ...

Apiary changes

At relatively short notice, I've been asked to vacate my largest apiary as the owner wants use of the site. This has nothing to do with being a poor tenant, and everything to do with the 'wading-through-treacle' speed with which bureaucracy works in large organisations.

It's always good to have a plan B ... unfortunately, that site was a bit too full of bees already.

Had the winter been harsh, or had the queen mating season last summer been a shocker, I might have had fewer colonies to relocate. Before opening the hives I was half expecting to spend a long weekend uniting weak (but healthy) colonies with strong ones, halving the overall number and squeezing a few moved hives onto some already overloaded stands.

As it was, with that single exception (lashings of eggs and larvae, but no sealed brood) everything has come through the winter looking good ... a nice problem to have, but nevertheless, a problem.

I live too far from the East Coast to spend days schlepping from farm to farm seeking an alternative site. To compound the problem; a) I really need to find a site a bit away from the area of the county I know best, and b) everywhere is totally waterlogged.

Partially flooded field
This was a relatively dry bit

Most of the county looks like a First World War battlefield, with mud everywhere and standing pools of water in every hollow, furrow and field margin.

'Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted' ... but it would involve a Unimog and a pair of chest waders at the moment.

Fife 'enjoys' an annual rainfall of ~830 mm (11 year average), but has received 923 mm from October last year ... unsurprisingly, it's a complete quagmire.

Shelter from the storm

As a temporary solution, I've generously been offered space in an association apiary. Even here the ground was impassable without Buster, my trusty hivebarrow, with recent evidence of a car needing to be towed out of the field by tractor.

With dismantled hive stands and hives in the back of the car, Buster strapped to the roofrack, and a stout pair of wellington boots for the boggiest bits, the colonies were moved without mishap late one afternoon.

Early the following morning I moved another set of hives and then added queen excluders and 'wet' supers to the strongest colonies.

This is probably the earliest I've ever added supers to colonies in Scotland, so I'm almost certainly tempting fate. However, the additional space will hopefully help delay any swarming urges until the old apiary to completely emptied and I've found sufficient space to store all the additional equipment.

Then it will be time to focus on queen rearing ...

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

My writing and photographs are protected by copyright.

Nevertheless, there are always people out there happy to ignore this and scalp individual posts - or a copy of the complete website - and present it, entirely unattributed, as their own.

In searching for the OSR nectar yield data, I came across a site called hive-haven.com.

What a bunch of clowns 🤡.

They've downloaded loads of pages from this site but then mangled the text using AI to produce something close(ish) but utterly garbled and largely meaningless {{6}}.

Here are a couple of quotes:

Me - Being a beekeeper means we can still provide for friends and family. Not quite a crofter but more dependable than a hunter-gatherer.

Them - 'Being a beekeeper means we will nonetheless present for family and friends. Not fairly a crofter however extra reliable than a hunter-gatherer.'


They 'translate' the title of the first beekeeping book I purchased ('Bees at the bottom of the garden') as Bees on the backside of the backyard 🤣.

It's so bad it's laughable, and - in a way - I'm relieved it's unattributed.

Nevertheless, it is infringement of copyright.

So, if you're in the US and thinking of buying from hive-haven.con ... DON'T.

The AI alone is sufficient to indicate they know little or nothing about beekeeping, and the fact that they've butchered my original text using AI - without any sanity checking, or even proof reading - just compounds the lack of confidence I would have in them.

Bees on the backside of the backyard ... amazing.

More housekeeping

Finally, a not unrelated couple of points about The Apiarist.

Lots of people are signing up to receive weekly posts (which is good) meaning I'm sending >20,000 newsletters a month (which is bad as I pay for them).

I've therefore conducted my first cull of subscribers who never open the newsletter or visit the site.

Anyone on the mailing list who received but didn't open the last four weekly posts has been taken off the newsletter list, but remains subscribed. If they visit the site and sign in, they can again opt-in to receive the newsletter again. I'd be delighted if they did.

I'll repeat this cull periodically to try and stop the email numbers growing to unmanageable (or unaffordable) levels. Avoiding the cut is easy - open the newsletter (and, ideally, read it!) and/or visit the website and sign in.

Inevitably this rather crude screening process means subscribers who have exceeded their mailbox limits, or have vacation auto-replies on for a month or more at a time, will have got the chop. There are a couple of hundred of these at the moment ... too many to manually re-include.

Finally, some future content will be available to paying subscribers only - termed supporters or sponsors. The final arrangements for this are currently being sorted out. I want some additional value for readers who have supported The Apiarist and don't want the draft chapters of my first book - Honeybees: their part in my downfall - to be plagiarised, bowdlerized, butchered by AI and published on hive-haven.con {{7}}.

Informative? Useful? Entertaining? ... choose any three.
Please support further articles by becoming a sponsor or funding the caffeine that fuels my late night writing ...

Thank you


Enkegaard, A., Kryger, P., and Boelt, B. (2016) Determinants of nectar production in oilseed rape. Journal of Apicultural Research 55: 89-99 https://doi.org/10.1080/00218839.2016.1192341.

{{1}}: We're near the limit of my spreadsheet and mathematical skills as it is.

{{2}}: Note the 'catch all' clause, which means I don't really know what else might influence this.

{{3}}: At the attrition rates previously described.

{{4}}: Tricky, as the legs, wings and antennae mean they don't pack together tightly.

{{5}}: Note also the potential for recording biases - there will be more records for the more populated regions of the country.

{{6}}: In fairness, some of it was garbled and meaningless before they started.

{{7}}: Yes, the typo is deliberate.

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