MORE than three-quarters of Scottish beekeepers lost at least one colony last winter, according to a new survey.

The first Scottish bee health study, commissioned by the Scottish Government, was designed to assess the health status of honey bees in Scotland and gain a better understanding of how factors such as husbandry and disease affect them.

It found 79% of beekeepers in Scotland lost at least one colony during winter 2012-13, compared to 39% the previous year.

Beekeepers identified weather, queen health, starvation and Varroa mites as the main factors behind the decline.

The highest winter losses in 2012-13 were sustained in the Highlands, with the lowest losses in Tayside.

Dr Phil Moss, health convener for the Scottish Beekeepers' Association, said he knew some members who had lost half of their colonies last winter, adding he was aware that many bee farmers – whose businesses depend on the management of healthy honey bees – were now importing bees to make up for lost stock.

The Government has announced £200,000 of funding to help Scottish bee farmers restock.

Dr Moss said: "The problems really started with the very bad summer we had last year. So it's not just the winter weather you have to worry about, it's the summer weather as well.

"Summer bees only live for six weeks, whereas winter bees can live for six months. But if you get to the end of the summer and the numbers of bees born for the winter season is down, then you're off to a bad start.

"The other problem has been the Varroa mites and the virus they carry – that was worse last year and those beekeepers who haven't been protecting against it enough were badly hit.

"So far, it's looking better for this summer though – especially if the good weather continues. My bees are doing pretty well at the moment."

A random sample of Scottish beekeepers took part in the survey, which consisted of a questionnaire, inspection of all colonies within the apiary, testing a sample of bees for disease symptoms and one week's collection from a hive debris trap.

The average Scottish beekeeper has been beekeeping for less than 10 years, manages five or fewer colonies and produces 20lb-29lb of honey per colony annually.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "Bees play a valuable role in our nation's ecosystem, acting as pollinators for many crops and wild plants – as well as producing honey and other products.

"However, they can also highlight other issues which may be developing in our environment, and that's why we believe it's important that we monitor bee health to ensure our bees stay healthy.

"The health survey published today shows that this winter has been a difficult one for many beekeepers and large numbers of colonies have been lost."

In Scotland there are currently about 1400 hobby beekeepers who are members of the Scottish Beekeepers' Association, with an estimated further 1000 hobbyists who are not. In addition there are about 25 commercial bee farmers who are members of the Bee Farmers' Association.