Good records are critical to managing colonies of honeybees. Imagine trying to recall the date and detail of a hive inspection completed in June 2011. Which one of the hives had the varroa mites? Did one have evidence of a weak queen? Were the brood boxes rotated? Did this hive or that one produce the most honey this year? The more colonies you have, the higher the risk of confusing details. Unless an eidetic memory is a personal gift, written records of honeybee colonies is essential.
Hive inspections at a minimum should address the health of the bees, the behavior of the colony and any treatments or interventions by the beekeeper.
Until now, I have been using a simple journal style I call "The Bee Log". This is a rudimentary way of documenting an inspection, but does track some information. For example here is the log entry from July 11, 2013:
"Checked hives. The new hive has at least two queens. Obvious queens and moving around. One on frame four and one on frame five counting from the east. Queens were both in the bottom brood box. Some honey stores, some pollen carriers coming in. Removed the feeder. They have not been eating it much. May have some early brood and some nectar stored. Small ants in the corner of the cover.
Old hive has good population. Top super has 1.5 to 2 frames to fill with honey. Left it on for more filling. Second super is a comb super. No pulling out yet, bees seem to be chewing it up instead of building. Left both in place.
Bees in both hives look healthy. No evidence of mites, moths or disease."
This method is better than nothing. The entry serves as a reminder of the progress made by the colony that was split from an existing one. Without this minimal information, it might be easy to recall there was a point after doing the split that two queens were vying for dominance in the newly created hive but remembering the date would be next to impossible.
The limitations however, are several. There is no standardization for the inspection. It relies on the beekeeper's memory while trekking back to the house before documenting the observations. There is no prompt while still in the bee yard to check for any particular issue. Sitting back in the house typing a journal entry is not the best time to think about checking for varroa mites.
Now that Five Feline Farm is entering the third year of beekeeping, it is time to improve the documentation of hive inspections.
A variety of checklists are available on the internet from bee supply companies, blogs of beekeepers and many books on beekeeping will also contain a format that can be copied for use. These checklists support at least three needs of the beekeeper: a consistent way of looking at the hive, ensuring all critical items are reviewed during the inspection and maintaining records over time.
As a practical matter, a clipboard, an inspection sheet for each hive and a pen should be taken to the bee yard when inspecting the colonies. Every hive should be given a distinct identifier such as a name or number. Within the hive, boxes can be numbered or lettered, and frames likewise identified by number. For example, the hives on Five Feline Farm are each labeled with a family member's initials, brood boxes are A for the top and B for the bottom, then frames numbered from east to west 1 through 10. Honey supers are labeled as first, second, third and so on with each frame numbered 1 through 9, east to west. This system of identifiers ensures that as the inspection sheet is completed and reviewed later there is no doubt about the location of what was observed.
Never one to simply use what is available, I developed a spreadsheet to encompass the points that I want to cover in each inspection. Those points are:
- Brood pattern and health-are the eggs and larvae in a semi-circle with few empty cells?
- Queen-was the queen observed? Are there sealed queen cells visible?
- Honey and pollen stores-is there a good arc of pollen and honey around the brood? Is a super ready to be added or removed?
- Behavior and temperament-are the bees aggressive or calm? Is there evidence of crowding and swarm impulse?
- Disease or pests-presence of varroa mites, wax moths, small hive beetles.
- Interventions or actions-any treatment for pests, added feed such as winter patties or sugar syrup. Adding or removing supers.
- Comments-anything else of note not covered in the above categories.
Despite the Star Trek feel of maintaining "The Bee Log", this new inspection sheet will prove more useful in the long run.
Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois. This hobby farm provides a space for gardens, bees and recipes. Follow us on Facebook and fivefelinefarm.com.
Photo by Bee photo by Cheryl Birkhead, inspection sheet by Julia Miller.