Beekeeping in the time of COVID-19

with apologies to Gabriel García Márquez...

A lot of people have been asking me about what is going to happen to the bees during the current lockdown during the COVID-19 outbreak, so I thought I'd write a quick post highlighting what the bees, and us beekeepers will be doing over the next few weeks and months.

Spring Inspections

Firstly the good thing about bees is that they are fundamentally wild animals. They thrive reasonably well without human intervention (apart from when facing problems introduced by humans, such as varroa) and so for the most part will not need a lot of attention. Secondly, we are still very much in the tail end of winter up here in Scotland, and so most beekeepers wouldn't be thinking of proeprly opening their hives for a few weeks yet, until the weather warms up a bit!

The main issue for bees in early spring - particularly a cold one like this is starvation. Hopefully most beekeepers will have been keeping an eye on the weight of their colonies ('hefting the hives' every now and then) and will have added extra feed earlier in the year. However some colonies might need a top-up about now to see them through until the spring flowers really get going.

The good news for beekeepers is that the UK and Scottish Governments have classified beekeeping, along with most other agricultural practices as 'permitted' during lockdown - see the National Bee Unit COVID-19 Statement


In most cases we can leave colonies to 'get on with it' - up to a point - and that point is swarm season. From May to July colonies increase by swarming, and beekeepers try their best to prevent and catch swarms before they leave the apiary and head off to set up home elsewhere.

In Edinburgh we operate a swarm coordination system, with one contact fielding calls out to beekeepers local to the swarm. This has worked very well, but this year brings some potential new challenges - beekeepers being too unwell to tend their bees or retrieve swarms and reaching colonies and swarms without any human interaction (particularly difficult for rooftop beekeepers!). All we can hope is that with beekeepers being at home they will be keeping a closer eye on the colonies in their gardens, and that swarms will be kind enough to land in easily accessible public places!

Bait Hives

Beekeepers can also produce 'Bait Hives' - empty hives set out in apiaries and gardens which can lure in swarms. Any suitable box can be used, as long as the following rules are followed:

  • The box should be around 40L in volume (a standard empty hive, or a stack of supers is the obvious choice
  • The box must have a solid roof and floor - scout bees don't like open mesh floors
  • Fit an entrance reducer to maintain a small entrance.
  • Add at least 1 old brood frame with wax for the smell of a colony, up against one wall. Optionally adding swarm lure as well.
  • Add empty frames (no wax) in the rest of the space: wax strips can be fitted to the top bar to encourage straight drawing. Bees like to fly and walk around the hive to measure it, so open space in the middle of the frames makes them feel the space is larger.

Put the box in a location not too close to other hives, and check on it now and then. Hopefully you will see scout bees investigating the door as a precursor to a swarm arriving!

There is a great writeup on setting up bait hives by David Evans, who recently gave an interesting talk to EMBA, on his blog - The Apiarist

Nucleus Colonies

Finally I would discourage beekeepers from focusing their efforts into raising nucleus colonies over and above what they need for their own stocks. The number of new beekeepers this year will be low due to the cancellation of many beginner classes, and we don't want to overburden ourselves with unsold colonies and extra work needed at a time when it is more difficult to carry out inspections.

Equally I would ask any new beekeepers or established beekeepers looking for bees to reach out to their local association. Those swarms mentioned earlier will often need homes, and there will definitely be cases where beekeepers need help with their colonies due to illness, travel restrictions etc, and will be looking to take on 'students' to mentor. Coordination through the association allows everyone to get a feel for

Good luck to all beekeepers in their beekeeping adventures this summer - hopefully things will get back to normal soon!