Natural beeks often do not conform to many of the practices of more conventional beeks, one example being that intrusive hive inspections are much less frequent. Observations made at the hive entrance and through windows normally provide sufficient information to judge the ongoing health for most purposes; full inspections are only carried out infrequently and with different emphases than for other beeks. For example, we are not usually looking to stop swarming or to artificially supersede a queen.
Because of this difference in approach, the more standardized hive record cards that conventional beeks use are not so directly useful to the natural beek. In my experience, many natural beeks keep records of their own devising, either individualised hive cards or an observations notebook – however the approach varies from beek to beek and is often not very consistent or easily cross- referable.
Here I share my own record forms devised especially for a natural beekeeping approach, along with some notes on their potential use as an ongoing learning tool, and offer guidance on what to look for when making observations.
Why keep records?
The main reason is so that you can learn about your highly individual colonies, be able to spot/anticipate/address significant problems, and to reassure yourself as to their ongoing health. Additionally, should your hives need to be inspected by the local Bee Inspector, then you can demonstrate that, despite not being a conventional beek, your bees are well-monitored and cared for responsibly.
These documents list the critical things you could observe, acting as a reminder checklist. As we rely primarily on frequent observations at the hive entrance instead of invasive inspections, it is important that we are thorough in these observations.
- A consistent format helps to compare data between hives, or dates for the same hive, easily.
- Seeing trends helps you pick up on problems before they become severe.
- When asking other beekeepers for advice, you can present plenty of diagnostic data. You may not know the significance of small white lumps outside the hive or a strange noise, but at least you will have noted them.
- Presenting a coherent and systematic set of records will reassure and help visiting bee inspectors.
- Things you learn in the active season can fade from memory over the winter months. Reviewing your notes retains this knowledge; and you gain insight as you spot patterns of behaviour you didn’t understand at the time. (“Ah, the oilseed rape bloom was over and they were starving…”)
Key observations to make
You need to learn what normal behaviour is for your colonies before you can spot a problem. You also need to be aware of what’s going on outside and around the hive.
What is happening at the entrance? Are they actively flying? Are they calm? Agitated? Do the numbers seem in line with expectations? What can you see through the windows?
Try to imagine you are a bee with an acute sense of smell and sensitive to factors like vibration, predators and air conditions.
Is the grass nearby being mown? Some colonies seem to become agitated when grass is cut – is it the smell? Is it the vibrations of the mower? Other colonies may not be so sensitive to this.
What is the weather like now? Also what has it been like recently? Sustained wet weather causes problems with forage and also may mean new queens cannot get out to mate. Bees acting oddly may mean nothing if a rainstorm is coming, but be significant if there are no other apparent external stress factors.
Is there food around? Keep an eye on local crops so you know if and when there is a forage shortage.
Evidence of dead bees by the entrance? Evidence of robbing? Is it wasp season? Is it poisoning? Something else?
Has the colony recently swarmed? How long ago? Should new brood be being raised? Is the hive calm? Is pollen being taken into the hive? Pollen being carried in is an indicator of queen health. There is an excellent pollen identifier chart on the Sevenoak and Tunbridge Wells Beekeepers’ Association website.
Looking back over my own records, there are two things that stand out. Some items were time-related. For example, finding lots of drone brood and no workers, a few weeks after a colony swarmed, was a warning that the virgin queen had not mated and the colony would die soon if I did not introduce a new queen.
Many bee lifecycle events have known delays which can be used to infer queen health. Even if you do not understand the significance of what you observe at the time, record everything that strikes you; this will help you as you reflect back, and also help others diagnose problems.
The other key thing I note in my own records is the section at the end titled “what I learnt”. One line here can summarise the entire page. When reviewing a mass of records this is a huge time saver, and sometimes reminds you of hard earned wisdom you forgot. “Don’t go running first! Wear clean clothes” (sweat alarms bees), “don’t wear black and yellow gardening gloves when gardening near hive, bees attack, probably think they’re hornets”, “queen always moves away from light so look on dark side of comb”, etc.
As for observations when inspecting internally, these are much the same as for conventional beeks, such as stores, brood pattern, presence of eggs and types of capped brood, any queen cells, evidence of pests or disease, etc.
How to record?
I looked at the kind of records conventional beekeepers keep, but they were not suitable: those are focused on queen manipulations, medication and honey yields, and have no guidance on how to actually find and recognise disease when you open a hive. But they did have some good features, like a separate sheet showing the layout of the apiary.
Consequently I devised my own set of records and notes which I attach below, for wider use and feedback.
Documents for downloading – notes, examples and forms (pdf files)
- Guidance notes and completed examples – print one copy as an aide memoire during inspections
- Blank forms:
- Apiary Overview – helps mentors/inspectors to grasp your setup
- Colony History – one form per hive – where the colony originated, etc.
- Hive Entrance Observation record – for regular non-invasive observations
- Hive Internal Inspection record – for when you have important questions about the health of the colony or need to undertake actions that cannot be done in any other way
Copyright: These documents were created by Paul Honigmann and are offered under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, meaning you can use, edit, redistribute etc as you wish as long as it is not for profit, you attribute the author by linking to this article on OxNatBees, and you maintain the same copyright status.
Suggestions on usage
These can be used either as electronic or written records. I annotate them by hand, but if you would like to use them electronically, Contact Us to request the docs in a .docx or similar format.
For written records: print the documents out on A4 – apart from the guidance notes/examples, for each apiary I suggest you print:
- 1 x Apiary Overview;
- 1 x Colony History sheet per hive;
- 5 x Hive Entrance Observation Record per hive (you’ll use this a lot as this is the main, non-invasive, inspection record form);
- 1 x Hive Internal Inspection Record per hive.
I would keep each apiary’s records in a separate ring binder; using dividers to separate the records for each hive within that apiary. This way it is easier to review each colony’s history along with its development and that of any sister colonies, and also to spot trends within or between apiaries.
The guidance notes show examples with some fields transcribed with notes for my own hives for illustrative purposes.
On those few occasions when you do decide that you have questions that can only be answered by a more thorough inspection, actually opening the hive, I suggest that you, first do a normal non-invasive Hive Entrance Observation Record, then use the Hive Internal Inspection Record to gain as complete a picture as possible.
You can either complete the records by hand, as you go along; or use a microphone (clipped inside your hood) to record what you observe to your mobile phone, and write or type them up later. The former technique has the advantage of the record sheet itself acting as a prompt as you go along (particularly useful for beginners); while the latter has the advantage, especially when opening the hive, that you have both hands free for any tricky manipulations.
Note that I sometimes take photos to augment my notes as these can be studied more closely later, and I always take them when observing something unusual. If keeping electronic records, this means that you can embed photos alongside your notes on, say, an odd brood pattern; however, printed photos can always be added to a written file or kept on computer as an additional fileset. A photo diary can be a very powerful learning tool.
I would be very interested to have your feedback on your own records, other formats, and any thoughts, additional items or suggestions on hive record keeping for natural beeks.