It's easy to get lost in the wonder of beekeeping. Whether you're a newbee or a veteran beek, inspecting your hives can be mesmerizing. There are countless details to watch for and endless fascinating behaviors to observe.
Every colony is different, and they make their hive their own. While it's fun to observe and soak it all in, you can do a lot to help your colony survive and thrive by keeping a good inspection log.
Let's talk about how to keep a good inspection log and what goes into one.
What Is an Inspection Log?
The basic idea is to keep a consistent record of the most important information about a hive. If you have multiple hives, you will want to have separate logs for each one. Beyond that, you have lots of options, and your goals and style as a beekeeper will help you decide the best kind of log for you.
Types of Log Books (and Apps)
Your first decision is what kind of log book (or app) you want to use.
In theory, you could just use a simple notebook, the kind you likely have laying around. Many people start here, but quickly tire of having to rewrite the same things over and over, so they prefer to print off or buy premade logs.
You can print the free logs people have made available online and put them in a binder or the like. Here are three you could use (check page 4 in the last document). You might also consider taking inspiration from those sheets and designing your own.
On the other hand, for the price of all that paper and a binder, not to mention your time and trouble, you could buy great premade logbooks. There are no-frills options and ones that come with lots of helpful information and diagrams included (here’s one that comes in color and B&W).
For these kinds of paper logs, you may want to keep them in or near the hive in a waterproof container, or in a tool roll containing your most important beekeeping tools.
Maybe you’d be interested in using an app on your phone. If so, you're in luck, there are more and more options every season. This list from EcoPeanut has several recommendations that may meet your needs. A few are even free, free to try, or free to use with a small number of hives.
Here are a couple other great apps that aren’t logs, but may aid your inspections:
- The Bee Health app (Android & iOS). This one is put out by the government of Alberta, Canada and has tons of great information in a handy format that could be very useful while you are performing inspections.
- Bee Scanning (Android & iOS). This app was originally developed in Sweden as part of a crowdfunding effort, but later received government support. It works to detect varroa mites and other pest and disease problems in the hive by uploading and analyzing photos you take with your phone. One thing to note—this app is reported to undercount varroa mites compared to alcohol washes.
What Makes a Good Log?
Ultimately, you decide what is important to keep track of in your hives. As you gain experience beekeeping, you will get a feel for which information is the most useful to you. However, you will likely find that most logs have many common elements. Let's walk through these common elements for your inspection log:
Queen & Brood
The first is the presence and condition of the queen. A colony without a queen is in real trouble and may need your help fast.
If you can spot the queen, that's great. Marking her may make this process easier in the future, and as Jennifer Tsuruda of the University of Tennessee explains: "An international color marking system helps beekeepers keep track of the age of their queens: Blue for queens produced in years ending in 0 or 5, white for years ending in 1 or 6, yellow for years ending in 2 or 7, red for years ending in 3 or 8, and green for years ending in 4 or 9."
While it's not always easy to spot the queen, you can't spend all day looking for her. You should keep normal inspections down to 10-20 minutes to minimize disturbance to the colony.
The stages of worker bee brood development: egg, larva, and capped larva
When you can't find the queen, you can use clues instead.
- If you can see eggs, that means a queen has been around within the last three days.
- If you see no eggs, but you see capped larvae, you know a queen was laying around nine days ago.
- If you can't find a queen, eggs, or larvae, you could be looking at a problem, so it is probably worth noting down whether you saw the queen and the amount of eggs/larvae you saw in a given inspection.
If you can’t see the eggs, try standing so that the sun is shining over your shoulder down onto the frame and tilt it back and forth a bit. You can also try taking pictures of the frame with your phone and zooming in on the pictures later to find the eggs. Some folks take note of the laying pattern, whether tight or haphazard (tight indicating a queen in better condition).
You may be able to spot another queen-related issue by noting the proportion of worker vs. drone brood you are seeing. If you are only (or mostly) seeing drone brood, that indicates that your queen may be unfertilized, and may put you at risk for more severe varroa mite problems, as they prefer drone brood.
A drone emerging, surrounded by capped drone brood
Mood & Food
An easy thing to check is the mood of the colony. Are the bees calm? Agitated? Even aggressive? If the bees aren't calm, this could just have to do with the weather or the timing of your inspection, but it could also be a sign of queenlessness or intruder problems, according to Angi Schneider.
By noting down the mood of the colony every time you inspect it, you can get a sense of how they respond to different things.
You will likely also want to log the population of the colony and the capacity of the hive. A colony that is too small can't survive (especially through winter), and a hive that is too full may swarm (especially in pollen season).
A foraging bee carrying pollen on her leg
Credit: Robert So
Check on the bees' food stores—namely honey and pollen. You should be able to see these stored in the frames and see if bees are bringing in pollen on their legs as they fly into the hive. A log might show that the bees are not on track to produce enough food for winter, or it might help you remember how much you've been feeding them, if you've determined feeding was needed.
Pests & The Rest
No inspection log would be complete without some entries for pests and disease. Protecting the health and safety of the hive is one of your main responsibilities as beekeeper, and taking full advantage of your log is one of the best ways you can do it.
A good first step is to take note of odors. An unpleasant odor could be a sign of American or European foulbrood, which are serious and highly contagious colony diseases. If you suspect you are dealing with foulbrood, we strongly recommend you get help from someone in your area with lots of experience and/or contact the relevant local authorities (which may be required in your area).
There could be many causes of a bad odor in the hive, such as a dead mouse, so noting when you first encountered the odor (maybe describing it) and what it turned out to be could be useful.
If it persists, you will have a record of when it started. It is useful to check for pests like ants, wax moths, small hive beetles, and varroa mites and log how many you find and what actions you take to deal with them.
For instance, maybe you put in a screened bottom board or placed small hive beetle traps in the hive. This information could be very useful to you in future seasons as you face similar problems.
Credit: Anete Lusina
Beyond these common log entries, there are a few other things you may wish to include.
- See if the bees are drawing comb.
- Check for queen cells (a warning sign of swarming or queen supersedure).
- Charlotte Anderson points out that if you are seeing bees fighting at the entrance of the hive, these may be guard bees fighting off robber bees, and robbing behavior is something many choose to include in their logs.
- You should not need to do things like add supers, add/remove queen excluders, requeen colonies, or split colonies very often, but many choose to include line items or check boxes for these types of occasions in their logs regardless.
In the end, what you really want is a log that is well-organized and allows you to keep track of the information that is important to you.
The honeybee colony is an amazing thing, and to fully enjoy the experience of working with the bees, we have to always keep learning. This ongoing learning also lets us grow as beekeepers, doing better and better for our bees.
In its own simple way, a good log is one of our most important learning tools. Since you can always improve your logging methods, just like the rest of your beekeeping methods, your logging has its own element of challenge and fun built in.
We'd love to hear about your tips and tricks for keeping logs, so be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Written by Zak Garland
Featured image by Timothy Paule II
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