Keeping track

It’s mid-May and the beekeeping season in Fife has segued from the early spring ‘phoney war’, where there’s not enough to do, to an earlier-than-normal swarming season where there’s not enough time to do everything needed.

I’ve got more colonies than ever, spread across three apiaries. Work, home and the Naughty Corner 1.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

I’ve previously written about that stage in a beekeepers ‘career’ when he or she makes the transition from struggling to keep one colony to struggling to keep up with all the bees they have.

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

Others are ‘naturals’ – what’s the equivalent of green-fingered for beekeeping? Sticky fingered (er, probably not) or perhaps propolis-fingered? Whatever, these new beginners smoothly progress to a level of competency well above the norm.

Struggling to keep

Beekeeping is easy in principle, but subtly nuanced in practice. The enthusiastic beginner can struggle. They lose their first colony in the first winter. They buy another, it swarms and throws off several casts and they end up queenless in mid-season. A new queen is purchased, but too late for the main nectar flow.

No honey again 🙁

And, it turns out, too late to build up the colony to get through the winter 🙁

Thoroughly demoralised now, they are resigned to more of the same or giving up altogether.

The overwintered nuc of fashionably dark native bees they ordered from Bob’s Craptastic Bees 2 fails to materialise 3.

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

The empty hive sits forlornly in a patch of weeds at the end of the garden, smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises.

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

And, in mid-May, a huge prime swarm moves in 🙂

The beekeeper has never seen so many bees in their life 4. How on earth do all those bees manage to squeeze into that little box?

Following advice from their new mentor, the beekeeper gently slides 11 frames into the box and is encouraged to treat for Varroa before there is any sealed brood. Considering their previous experience things go surprisingly well, not least because the bees have a lovely temperament.

The bees ignore, or at least gracefully tolerate, the beekeeper’s novice fumblings. Instead they single-mindedly focus on drawing comb, rearing brood and collecting nectar.

Struggling to keep up with

The summer is long and warm, with just enough rain to keep the nectar flowing. The hive gets taller as supers are added. By autumn there’s enough honey for friends and family and a partially capped super to leave for the bees.

The bees are lovely to work with and the confidence and competence of the beekeeper improves further.

After overwintering well, the colony builds up strongly again and by mid-May of the following year the beekeeper has used the nucleus method for swarm control and now has two hives. The bees remain calm, steady on the comb, well tempered and prolific.

Very prolific.

By the end of this second ‘proper’ year the beekeeper has two full colonies and a nuc to overwinter.

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

With good bees, good weather, a determination to succeed and supportive training and mentoring the problem should be keeping up with the bees, not keeping them at all.

Stock improvement

Some bees are better than others. Once you have more than one colony – and you should always have at least two – you start to see differences in behaviour and performance.

Frugal colonies overwinter on minimum levels of stores and, if fed properly, don’t need a fondant topup in Spring.

Well behaved colonies are steady on the comb, only get protective when mishandled and don’t follow you around for 200 yards pinging off your veil.

Some bees are great at making more bees but promptly eat all their stores as soon as the weather takes a downturn. Others regularly need three supers per brood box 5.

These traits become apparent over the course of a season and, of course, are diligently recorded in your hive notes 😉

Primarily these characteristics are determined by the genetics of the bees.

Which means you can improve your stock by culling poor queens and uniting colonies and expanding – by splitting or queen rearing – your better bees.

Keeping track

And in between the swarming, splitting, uniting, moving and re-queening the overworked (but now hugely more experienced) beekeeper needs to keep track of everything.

Or, if not everything, then the things that matter.

Which bees are in which box, where that old but good queen was placed for safety while the hive requeened, which box did the overwintered nuc get moved to?

I’ve discussed the importance of record keeping a few years ago 6. I still score colonies by objective (e.g. levels of stores, frames of brood, number of supers added) and subjective (e.g. temper/defensiveness, steadiness on the frame, following) criteria.

This takes just a minute or so. I don’t write an essay, just a simple series of numbers or ticks, followed if necessary by a short statement “Skinny queen, laying rate ⇓, demaree’d” or “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

Objective and subjective notes

I still use pretty much the same hive record sheet for these notes (available here as a PDF) as it has served me well.

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

What hasn’t served me so well are the numbers painted on the side of some of my hives.

These were supposed to help me identify which colony was which when I’m reading my notes or in the apiary.

Trivial in the overall scheme of things I know, but as colony numbers have increase and my memory goes in the opposite direction I’ve realised that numbers painted on boxes can be limiting.

For example:

  • The colony expands from single to double brood. There are now two numbers on the hive. Which do you use?
  • You do a Bailey comb change, consequently changing one brood box for another. Do you record the changed number or continue to refer to it by the old number?
  • You use the nucleus method of swarm control. The nuc is numbered. All good. The nuc expands and has to be moved into a hive. It’s the same colony 7, does the number change? It has to if the numbers are painted on the boxes.
  • Some hives seem to have never been numbered (or the number has worn off) in the first place. These end up being named ‘The pale cedar box’ or ‘Glued Denrosa’. Distinctive, but not necessarily memorable.

And that’s before we’ve even considered keeping track of queens. For work (and for some aspects of practical beekeeping) queens are sometimes moved.

“Easy” some would say. The characteristics of the colony are primarily due to their genetics. These are determined by the queen. The hive number moves with the queen.

It’s easy to move a queen. It’s a bit more work to move the 60,000 bees she’s left behind to free up the numbered box to accompany her.

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

OK, what about a colony that goes queenless and then rears a new queen? If the logic of hive/colony=queen prevails then logically the requeened colony should be renumbered.

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

I purchased some waterproof plastic numbered cards and some small red engraved disks 9. Both are designed for identifying tables in pubs or restaurants.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I use the plastic card numbers to identify colonies. These accompany the bees and brood if they move from one apiary to another, or as colonies are split and/or united. It’s the colony I inspect, so this provides the relevant geographic reference and is the thing I’m writing about to when my notes state “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

I use the red numbers to identify the queen. A queenless colony will therefore have no red disk on it.

When a nuc is promoted to a full hive the number moves with it. If the colony swarms and  requeens, one red number is ‘retired’ and a new one is applied.

My notes carry both the colony number and the queen number. I have a separate record of queens, with some more generic comments about the performance of the colonies they head.

Colony and queen numbering

The numbers are sold in 50’s … I use them at random 10. About half of them are in use at the moment.

If queen rearing goes well, swarming goes badly or things get out of hand, numbers 51-100 and engraved black disks are also available 😉

Finally, to make life a little simpler I bought a box of stainless steel 11 map pins. These are easy to grip with a gloved hand and don’t need to be prised out with a hive tool. They have the additional advantage of being short enough to not project beyond the handhold recess on the sides of most hive boxes so they can be pushed together if they’re being moved.

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉





  1. Where the badly behaved colonies are sent ;-)
  2. Strapline “If the benefits of native bees is all Greek to you buy then your bees from Ροβέρτος Bob – you won’t be disappointed (or surprised)“.
  3. Something to do with Olympic Air … hmmm, why should this influence an overwintered nuc?
  4. In truth the nucs they had bought were thrown together from swarmy bees and unselected queens. The colonies swarmed on six frames of brood, well before the box was filled.
  5. Or four or more if you’re in the balmy South of England … in Fife the season is shorter and the yields are less. But I’d always prefer quality to quantity :-)
  6. 2015 … was it really that long ago?
  7. It’s actually the ‘parental’ colony that’s going to change.
  8. But in reality totally out of the question in the middle of the swarm season when you’re running out of time, equipment and patience!
  9. Shop around, these have both doubled in price since I purchased them.
  10. After all, the entire reason I’m using them is because boxes and queens get moved around.
  11. Allegedly … I think some are showing signs of rust already :-(

20 thoughts on “Keeping track

  1. Mike Gould

    By some very uncanny coincidence I bought exactly the same plastic discs to keep track of all the extra queens I suddenly gained last month. Good to see I’m on the right track.
    The easy grip map pins are a great idea too. Though I’ll still need regular drawing pins for marking frames. Doubtless they’ll all end up mixed up in the bottom of my tool box along with the crown of thorns waiting for me to go looking for something in a hurry

    1. David Post author

      Hi Mike
      I mark the frames with a queen marking pen rather than faff around with drawing pins. It doesn’t cause too much confusion 😉
      The map pins work well. Mine came in a neat snap lid box which – coincidentally – snapped open in my bee bag this evening so ensuring extensive self-harm as I scrabble around in there over the next few days. They are very sharp 🙁

    1. David Post author

      Thanks Fred … and your comment reminded me I’d spelt phoney wrongly … I’ve corrected both.

  2. Jackie

    Great idea about the numbering method. My hives had been called oak, brambles etc according to where they were situated in the garden. A quick trip to amazon and my hives will be numbered.going forward.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Jackie
      I have a garden in which the hives would have to be called rhododendron, rhododendron, rhododendron … it could get confusing 😉

  3. Dot Coe

    Fantastic, described my first few years of beekeeping very well, although I didn’t take the Greece option! I now have 2 apiaries and multiple sets of kit and rue the day I set off with WBC’s 😉

    1. David Post author

      Hello Dot,
      Ah yes … WBC’s. They look lovely but they do mean you have an even greater proliferation of wooden boxes.
      And more painting 🙁 On the other hand, there’s no mistaking what they are. Everyone recognises a WBC hive. I have a red painted poly bait hive at the bottom of the track and the postman asked if he could leave the mail in there rather than bring it up to the house 🙂

  4. John Eaden

    Nice to see the way your thinking developed- very similar to ours over the past year as colonies proliferated. You have clearly outlined the issues involved in trying to be systematic with identifying colonies.
    This season all our queens are from last year – almost identical red marks. So when we had a recent swarm it would have been handy to quickly identify which queen it contained when we retrieved it. Now considering using numbered discs on queens to aid identification. Step by step towards improvement?

    1. David Post author

      Thanks John
      I’ve used those small numbered discs and found them a real pain to attach. The glue supplied with mine wasn’t great (actually, it was rubbish) and I replaced it with some sort of superglue. If you misapply it you either condemn the queen or end up with her stuck to the end of your finger … which comes to much the same thing. Perhaps I should try again.
      Of course, with my comprehensive notes and regular-as-clockwork inspections I know precisely which colony might have swarmed … my neighbours 😉

  5. Daire Winston

    Thank you David, I always read and enjoy your blogs and appreciate you taking the time to post.

    1. David Post author

      Good to hear you enjoy them Daire … what started (a little over 6 years ago) as an attempt to share some articles I wrote for my beekeeping association seems to have developed a life of its own 🙂

  6. Dave Stokes

    Considering that you work closely with Dr Bodgit (if I’ve spelt his name correctly), I’m surprise that you buy numbers. I print mine on ordinary paper, cut them out and laminate them. I can get 24 from a single A4 sheet of each. I used to number brood boxes (they still are but the paint is rapidly fading) but now just pin the number of the queen on the hive. The number of the first queen to emerge this year is 1-19 which enables me to mark all my queens with white.
    Apart from that, I’m pleased to note that our recording methods are remarkably similar. My permanent records are on a computer database which enables me to automatically combine scores for each queen to give each one an overall value. It’s a shame that my database programme became obsolete with the advent of Windows 10, so I’ll need to find an alternative when I upgrade – I might just end up keeping an obsolete computer for the purpose.
    Thanks for your usual interesting article.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave
      Dr. Bodgit has tried printing and laminating his own labels … and wasn’t wildly successful. Over time exposed to the elements the laminations delaminated. That was when I lived in the Midlands. We have rather more ‘elements’ here in Scotland 😉
      I use computers and spreadsheets most days but still prefer paper records of queens and colonies. I can carry them around with me, I can read them in the bath (I don’t) and I can either write them there and then in the apiary, or update them from my dictaphone sitting in the evening sun with a beer. I also spend too long in front of screens.
      If you can get your data out of the database as a CSV format file you could use an open source replacement. I use sqlite for lots of stuff and it’s very good. There are precompiled binaries and graphical front-ends available.
      Highly recommended.

      1. Dave Stokes

        Thanks, I’ll have a look at sqlite. There’s no problem exporting csv files, might even be able to copy & paste.
        At the apiary I have a report (that looks like a record card – including blank rows for writing in the updates) printed out for each colony.

  7. Emily

    This reminds me… must print out new hive record notes for each of the new swarms I’ve recently caught. Thanks David!

    1. David Post author

      You’re welcome!
      I carry a sheaf of spares with me … I used two last night making up nucs. If I don’t make a note of it there and then I soon forget … and then I wonder where on earth that unmarked nuc box came from 🙂

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