16 min read

Beekeeping records

Unless you have just one hive (and even then, you should), or a prodigious memory, you will need to keep records of your hive inspections. What are the options? Cryptic, analogue, digital, app, in hive or at home?
Beehive roof with a bri
Queen cell on the left side of the third frame in from the entrance ... er, or something

All around the country, new beekeepers - fresh from attending a How to start beekeeping winter course - will be buying their first nuc, eagerly watching a bait hive for scout bees, or precariously teetering up a stepladder trying to entice a lost swarm (someone else's) into a skep.

Your first bees ... a notable event.


At about the same time, second year beekeepers will be checking their hive (or perhaps hives by now?) for evidence of swarm preparations. If they started with a nuc last year, they might have got through the season - not least because the weather was often poor in 2023 - without experiencing the magnificence of swarming.

Magnificent and - in equal measure if they're your bees - frustrating, as that's this year's summer honey harvest disappearing over the fence.

And finally, the rest of us - the old lags more experienced beekeepers - who have put up with the disappointments of poor summers, swarms going AWOL and laying workers, who have experienced the highs of bonanza honey harvests, successes in queen rearing and few, if any, overwinter losses - will know what to expect and when to expect it as the 2024 season unfolds.

The same but different

There's a tale about a weather forecasting competition in which the entrants had to predict the weather in advance, one day at a time, over a year.

Supercomputers went head-to-head with schoolkids.

Geeky meteorologists vs gawky teenagers.

The schoolkids won ... or, more specifically, the kids from the school won in which the team's prediction was:

The weather tomorrow will be the same as it was today

And, with the substitution of 'days' for 'years', pretty-much the same could be said of the beekeeping season.

This year will be much like last year, and last year was similar to the year before, etc.

Well, "D'uh" as one of those gawky teenagers would say (with exaggerated eye-rolling), of course it will be ... beekeeping is a seasonal activity and there will be a winter, spring, summer and autumn season.

They'll be in that order, and the summer will be warmer than the winter, with spring and autumn somewhere in between. Simples.

That weather forecast competition might be apocryphal ... I remember it distinctly, but I can't find a reference to it on the internet {{1}}. Is this a false memory or an example of Google's fallibility?

Remember, if you're reading this from the emailed newsletter, then you're missing the worst of the jokes and asides. You need to view the post using a web browser for the fully immersive experience. You'll thank me ... perhaps.

But what was the beekeeping season like last year?

A few paragraphs ago I stated "because the weather was often poor in 2023".

Did it hold back spring expansion, swarming, the summer honey, or curtail the heather crop?

I can't precisely remember ... I've just got this vague recollection that it generally wasn't a great season, and there was no summer honey.

Flowering sycamore
Sycamore, early May 2024

However, my beekeeping records contain the information and these show what happened when. More importantly, when I compare them to the season before, or the one before that, I can start to see patterns. Slow spring build up delaying swarm preparations, pre-emptive swarm control and its impact on honey production, when the sycamore started to flower etc.

Strategy and tactics

But we're getting dangerously close here to the predictive value of things like growing degree days or phenology, both topics I discussed briefly last week {{2}}.

Beekeeping records - at least when related to environmental phenomena - do have some predictive value. I consider this largely strategic ... how is the season progressing, what might I expect next, when will the lime start to yield? {{3}}

But, unless your memory is a damn sight better than mine {{4}}, beekeeping records should also provide critical fine-grained information on the status and week-to-week performance of the colony; how old is the queen, are they defensive in iffy conditions, how many supers are on the hive, when did I last swap some old brood frames out for replacements, should I rear queens from the larvae?

You could think of this as tactical information. The nitty-gritty, cumulative, inspection-by-inspection progress of a colony through the beekeeping season(s).

And this information is not just retrospective, it can also be prospective ... an aide-mΓ©moire for what's needed next time you visit the apiary; change the floor, mark the queen, add a frame of drone foundation - great genetics, 'spread the love' - and a thousand and one other things, many too trivial to list but nevertheless frustrating when forgotten or overlooked.

How to ...

I'll be writing some posts prefixed 'How to ...' over the next few months. These are intended to be 'reference' posts of best practice rather than just a cunning ploy to score bigly {{5}} on the SEO scores or entice the Google web-bots to visit more frequently. These will be premium posts, and you'll need to be a sponsor to access them ... unless hive-haven.con finds a way to circumvent the paywall.

However, a post on beekeeping records does not warrant an instructional 'How to ...' prefix because there are loads of different ways to keep them, some better than others, but none perfect.

If you've got one hive and a good memory, that might be sufficient.

Conversely, if you have one hive and a memory like mine ... hold on, where was I?

Once you've got 3, or 5 or 15 hives then that's a lot more information to store.

I inspected half a dozen hives yesterday evening. By the sixth I couldn't remember whether the first or second hive had the white-marked queen, or which of the six had the best laying pattern.

Once you're elbow-deep in an inspection, concentrating on not squashing bees, on seeing eggs, on checking the levels of stores, on looking for signs of disease, on detecting those infuriatingly well-hidden queen cells, then one hive looks much the same as the next.

Laying worker frames
Classic dispersed drone-in-worker cells from laying workers ... bad luck

Unless it's terminally queenless and has developed laying workers πŸ™.

But, once you've got 300 - or 3,000 - hives then it becomes a numbers game; a queen missed here or there isn't an issue, and you'll have taken a truck to the apiary with spares a'plenty. With that number of hives, you'll use a record-keeping system that records the bare essentials, and probably little else. This post is not for you.

Retrospective and concurrent records

There's a relationship between the number of hives and the need for keeping good records, at least for the sorts of colony numbers that most amateur beekeepers run.

If you've only got a couple of hives you might be able to jot down a few notes when you're having a cuppa after returning from the apiary.

However, if you've got ten times that number you'll either need Rajveer Meena's memory (he recited Ο€ to 70,000 decimal places) or should make notes soon after each hive is inspected.

When I re-read some of my notes, I think I'd have been better off recording them concurrently - like Jack Klugman doing an autopsy in Quincy or Alexx Woods in CSI - did I really see the queen, or just the eggs that she laid in the last three days? Was it 5-6 frames of brood - they've got space to grow - or 8-9?

It's a memory thing.

I can tell you Ο€ is between 2 and 5.

I think.

Anything is better than nothing

Well, more or less πŸ˜‰.

So, what are the choices when it comes to beekeeping records?

I guess they could be divided into a number of different groups ...

  • cryptic vs. readable
  • in/on/under the hive vs. elsewhere
  • analogue vs. digital

... and there may be other groupings I've either not tried, forgotten or remain blissfully unaware of.

Rocks and pins

I know some beekeepers indicate the state of the colony using a strategically placed brick or stone on the hive roof.

Cryptic clue

Queenright, requeening, needs a new queen, open queen cell on the bottom of the third frame in from the hive entrance, tendency to follow, some chalkbrood?

What does the brick placement mean?

Dunno, your guess is as good as mine.

This is what I'd call a cryptic record keeping system. I'm sure the beekeeper knows what it means, but it's opaque to everyone else. Not that that's a problem ... it's only the beekeeper that needs to know what the 'records' mean.

But the informational content achievable with a strategically positioned brick is limited. Not quite binary, but not far off. The location of that queen cell on the third frame was sarcasm ...

The brick might be accompanied by a coloured pin indicating the age and/or status of the queen. Colourless for unmarked, red for 2023 or blue for 2020.

Really, her fourth year? Was that a blue pin left there from a previous year, or a reflection that you ran out of yellow pins?

I'm sure these sorts of 'flags' work, but I'd want them in addition to slightly more comprehensive notes.

On the roof

If you watch Mike Palmer's videos {{6}}, you'll see he often has hive notes written on gaffer tape stuck to the hive roof.

Hive roof with notes
Nine years later, the roof still carries these 'notes'

I've added brief notes to the hive roof, but it's not a great method. If you upturn the roof to stack the supers on it might be wet when you want to write your notes on it. The gaffer tape I've tried either comes unstuck on a vaguely damp day or survives submersion and can never be removed.

And those notes are - by definition - in the apiary, which brings me neatly to ...

Under the hive roof ... or accessible?

I think that heading gives a clue to my views on where hive records are best kept.

The good thing about keeping your hive records underneath the hive roof is that there should be no mistaking which colony they apply to. There's also the convenience and immediacy of being able to lift the roof, read the records and know exactly what to expect when you lift the crownboard.

And that pause while you decipher them gives the waft of smoke under the crownboard time to work its magic.

Even with my attention-span-of-a-goldfish I should be able to remember that the queen is from 2022 and - despite that - marked blue, that I'd noted some limited signs of DWV, stores were low and that they were on 7-8 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) the previous week.

I'd therefore know to check whether they had expanded, if there were enough stores in the box and - particularly - if more workers were presenting with DWV pathogenesis.

At least, I'd be able to check all those things if slugs hadn't chewed up the record card, if they were written legibly in the first place and if they had not blown across the field as soon as I lifted the roof on a windy day.

OK, I'm exaggerating for effect there.

You can get slugs under the roof, but usually in winter not summer. You can also protect your jottings by putting them into a plastic sleeve of some sort, which might also save them disappearing across the field.

But you still have to record the relevant information and write them legibly ... assuming you remember your pen.

Or should that be chinagraph pencil if the afternoon is damp?

Out of sight, is out of mind

But there's an issue with these sorts of in/on/under the hive records, at least there is for those of us who have remote apiaries.

I'm using the term 'remote' to mean anything from the other side of the country to up the hill at the back of the house {{7}}, or the corner of the meadow over the road.

Remote apiary
It's a long way back to the car from this apiary

In these circumstances, you want the records to help remember what you need to take next week when you visit the apiary. Another super, more frames, a split board? Far better that you take it with you than you have to make a second trip or, worse, cannot do something time-sensitive that the colony needs.

For this reason, I've always - at least, since finding I forgot things when I left the notes under the hive roof - favoured records that stay with me, not with the hive.

The digital revolution

By digital, I mean either an audio recording (not very convenient to review prior to the inspection the following week) or - more usually - a smartphone-based app.

There are several of these ... BeeKing, Beetight, BeePlus... and no doubt a load more, all imaginatively prefixed with 'Bee' {{8}}. Some of these are more customisable than others, some look great but are disappointingly inflexible.

However, most apps suffer from using a proprietary data format, or one that does not easily allow past records to be compared with the current season, or has no method allowing data export.

I've dabbled with a few of these apps but, in all honesty, can't say I've given any of them a proper trial. If you have, please leave a comment/recommendation ... not an advert πŸ˜‰.

My issues with phone-based apps are two-fold.

The data format; if it's proprietary, will the company even exist in a year or three when you want to compare when the sycamore started flowering? If not, is there an export option to something generic and open - like comma separated variables, or YAML, or TOML or - cue a not-so-silent silent scream - XML?

You don't know what these acronyms mean {{9}} or there is no export function?

Move on ... it might not be a limitation now, or next year, but it will be a limitation.

The data is yours, not theirs.

You'll thank me in the future.

Oh yes, the second issue.

Beekeeper's gauntlets

Whether you wear a set of welder's gauntlets like these, or the thinnest latex or nitrile gloves, you'll still struggle to use a capacitive touchscreen on a smartphone. Tapping menu items, or pull-down lists, or - worse still - trying to type, is a frustrating and time-consuming activity.

And that's before the gorgeous Gorilla glass of your Β£1,200 iPhone 15 Pro is smeared with propolis and honey πŸ™.


The written word ... a bit retro perhaps, but most of us know how to produce it, save it and re-read it.

As a means of keeping records it has stood the test of time; these Mesopotamian records of a Pagden's artificial swarm from 4,600 years ago are still readable if you understand cuneiform script {{10}}.

Cuneiform script, bill of sale
... wait 7 days then move the hive to the other side ... Louvre Museum

Not as cool as a snazzy app of course, but an eminently pragmatic choice for a sausage-fingered beekeeper in the middle of a hive inspection.

Although I wouldn't recommend it, you can probably wield a pen wearing welder's gauntlets.

Instead, I'd recommend using a thinner pair of gloves; not only will this make writing easier, but largely because it makes doing the hive inspection easier.

With nitriles, using a pen is easy.

Or a pencil.

nu: tough paper ... recommended

If it's damp (and it sometimes is in Scotland) a pencil might be a better choice, and there are notebooks with 'waterproof' paper available - often designed for people doing fieldwork - that mean even poor weather won't stop you updating the hive records. I've used nu: stone notebooks or, much better, their 'tough paper' notebooks - water, oil and tear-resistant - which are more utilitarian (and cheaper). I bought a job-lot years ago, but they are still sometimes listed on eBay.

Free text or structured?

The next important question is what to record.

In reality, almost every hive inspection involves checking the same things week after week; colony size, space, stores, disease, temper etc.

Many of these things lend themselves to tick boxes, or a simple numerical scoring scheme. It's far easier to score - and retrospectively compare - the qualitative traits you are interested in numerically than it is to provide a descriptive sentence or two.

Temper 1/5 ...

... so much easier than writing "psychotic monsters hell-bent on inducing anaphylaxis, chased me back to the truck, stung the farmer (and his dog), awful, even worse than last week. Monsters.".

OK, that's another exaggeration, but you get the general idea.

It's easier to score the presence of the queen like this βœ…, than needlessly writing "saw the queen".

In my notes I record whether I see the queen and whether she is clipped and marked with just two letters - e.g. YC (meaning she's there, marked yellow and clipped) - which are omitted if I don't see her ... which is not the same thing at all as the colony being queenless.

And its Y- if she's not clipped, -C if the mark is wearing off, and -/- if she was superseded late last season ... all are hints that I need to do something.

If you're reducing some of the records to simple check marks and numerical scores, it makes sense to create a standardised form to record it all. Include flexible space for free text comments, together with a 'To do' column, and don't forget to include some of these once-per-season-but-nevertheless-important events, like miticide treatment (you need to record the batch number), feeding etc. Print these forms out, one per hive, and keep them somewhere convenient and safe.

Reviewing hive records (a decade ago)

I kept my hive records like this for over a decade and it worked well. I could easily get a full season on a double-sided sheet of paper, they were easy to read when I needed to - everything was (relatively) legible, and the information was in a consistent format and order.

Digital and analogue

In fact, I still keep the records like this, but I now keep them on a spreadsheet transcribed from a digital audio recording made in the apiary.

Sony digital recorder
Sony ICD-UX570 digital recorder

I carry a propolis-resistant digital recorder in my beesuit pocket. It has a simple on-off slider, and is switched between record and pause with a big, fat, easy to use, thumb-sized button on the front.

I inspect the colony, dictate a few sentences and move onto the next hive. It takes seconds. I know the columns in the spreadsheet - queen, brood, stores, supers, treatment, feeding, temper, following, running (stability on the comb) etc. so can simply say "hive #48, yellow clipped/marked queen, #22, 4's for temper and following, 3 for running, 7-8 frames of brood, stores OK, added a super, needs a replacement frame (damaged lug)".

The order is irrelevant, but the content isn't.

With suitable lubrication - coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, red wine at all other times - I then transcribe the notes into the spreadsheet.

It takes longer to describe it than it takes to do.

The date and time at the start of the first hive inspection are recorded automatically by the machine. I add a very brief comment - "12Β°C, calm and cool" - about the weather (as it impacts colony behaviour).

Low scores (where low scores are bad) get automagically highlighted with conditional cell formatting - literally 'red flags' - as do any entries in the 'To do' column. This makes looking out for - or avoiding - these things the following week that bit easier.

Spreadsheet of beekeeping records
Spreadsheet records

Colonies with consistently poor scores are requeened, and those with good scores are used to provide the larvae for queen rearing.

A spreadsheet is always legible, so it's easy to scan back weeks or months. Or search.

What doesn't work?

This combined digital and analogue approach works for me, but it is not perfect.

Hives and queens get numbers, not names and/or descriptions. It's not the 'paddock hive headed by Florence'. Instead, it's #17 headed by Q23. When queens are moved - for example, during swarm control, her number moves. The nuc gets a new hive number.

Hive and queen numbers
Black (hive) and red (once upon a time; queen) numbers

It's all a bit less personal, but it's a lot easier to transcribe into the spreadsheet.

Of course, I can't view the hive records when in the apiary.

Well, that's not entirely true ... I could view them on my phone screen if it wasn't for the welder's gloves πŸ˜‰.

All that means is that I have to review the notes before venturing out to the apiary. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it means I remember to take an extra frame with me to replace the one with the damaged lug. It reminds me that hive #43 was 'hot' and that there was a sealed queen cell on the fifth frame of #11.

Try conveying that with a brick on the roof.

Finally, my digital audio recorder has a voice-activated recording function.

I tried it.

Don't bother.

Not only did I miss some of the things I did say, I also recorded a lot of things I didn't.

The recorder is black and the bees are sometimes attracted to it. I tried hanging it round my neck, or standing it on the adjacent hive roof. They get within inches and activate the record function. Transcription takes much longer as you have to page through minutes of angry buzzing.

Keep it in your pocket, burble a few words into it after completing the inspection and type up the brief notes in comfort when you get home.

It works for me πŸ‘


Is anyone still reading? That took about 3,800 words more than I'd expected.

In closing, I just wanted to highlight three changes on the website, or in the newsletter:

  • I've included a 'more like this/less like this' feedback option in the footer. I know how many receive and read (or at least open) the newsletter, but I've little idea whether you enjoy it or not. The feedback options aren't hugely nuanced, and I can't promise to go with the popular vote, but they're better than nothing.
  • Newsletters now list the last three posts (also in the footer) that have appeared on the The Apiarist, just in case you missed them. Fill yer boots!
  • Some posts - for example, the one to be published next week - are now only for sponsors of The Apiarist. For those of you who are not, see you in a fortnight or so ...

{{1}}: If it's not on the internet, did it ever happen? ... that's a philosophical question for another time. However, this forecasting method - termed persistence - has supporters, see this article for a discussion.

{{2}}: And will again ... GDD in particular are very interesting and the spreadsheet-fu is improving.

{{3}}: Answer ... this year, next year, sometime, never (delete as appropriate, but it's generally the last of these).

{{4}}: It is.

{{5}}: From the Middle English byggly (stately, perfect) rather than a poorly enunciated big league.

{{6}}: And you should. Many of them are a cut above the usual rubbish on YouTube.

{{7}}: Both of which apply to my beekeeping.

{{8}}: BeeHonest ... for the beekeeper who is happy to admit their colony swarmed, that it's really only 5 frames of brood (not 9), and that they only averaged 6 kg of honey per hive. I predict this app would not be a commercial success.

{{9}}: Welcome to my world ...

{{10}}: OK, that was a bit of artistic licence ... it's actually a contract to purchase a house and field. James Pagden died in 1878.

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