Setting the Standard for Managing Healthy Honey Bee Colonies

The Healthy Colony Checklist by Bayer is being incorporated into the HiveTracks and BroodMinder systems for access by beekeepers globally. It’s just one of the latest developments for this simple sheet of paper that is blossoming into an essential tool for the beekeeping world

dick roger
Dick Rogers shows the paper and the electronic versions of the Healthy Colony Checklist.

Developed by Dick Rogers, Principal Scientist and Manager of Bee Health & Integrated Apiculture Research for the Bayer Bee Care Program in North America, the Healthy Colony Checklist is a one-page document that lists the six conditions that need to be satisfied for a healthy honey bee colony.

Anytime a beekeeper opens a hive, the most basic questions they need answered are : 1) Is the colony healthy?; 2) If not, why?; and 3) What needs to be done to fix the problem?

The Healthy Colony Checklist focuses in on answering those questions as quickly as possible. Using knowledge and experience, a beekeeper simply needs to assess six conditions and put a quick checkmark or X next to each to indicate if a condition is satisfactory or deficient. If a condition is deficient, then the beekeeper needs to determine what action is needed to fix the deficiency and write the corrective action needed in the box beside the condition.

“That’s all there is to it,” Dick says. “If you do that for all six conditions, then you not only have an idea of whether your hive is healthy or not, but if any of the conditions are deficient, you make a note what the deficiency is and what you need to do to fix it, so now there’s no post-inspection processing either. The only processing is scheduling when you’re going to do that fix.”

No Pen Needed
Moving the Healthy Colony Checklist from paper to an electronic format means beekeepers won’t need to carry around a pen to mark their X’s and checkmarks, and they won’t need to transfer data into a summary spreadsheet for further analysis.

Most importantly, the Checklist will become more of a standard for beekeepers around the world. HiveTracks, an online hive management tool, has already implemented the Healthy Colony Checklist and the big push for 2018 is to encourage and train beekeepers to use it effectively. BroodMinder, a hive monitoring tool, also is promoting its use and is planning to offer it as a feature on their website.

I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a healthy hive for about 40 years. For 30 of those years, I really couldn’t put any definition around it…In the last three years, it’s like a lightbulb went off. It just fell out of a lot of experience in thousands and thousands of hives. Every time I open a hive, I’m trying to figure out whether it’s healthy or not.

Dick Rogers

“Then beekeepers can start talking about the health of their hives from this definition of a healthy colony as opposed to very random observations that are using different levels of knowledge and methods,” Dick says.

Twigs and Stones
It’s been Dick’s long-term goal to develop a simple tool for beekeepers so they can do more frequent hive inspections and do them more quickly with minimal writing. Also, he wanted the tool to improve the identification of what management is needed, as well as improve the assignment and scheduling of those tasks.

“Beekeepers have all sorts of ways of keeping records, from putting twigs on the top of their hives to writing on the side of the box to putting stones on the cover in different configurations or making notes on their hands or on a piece of paper,” Dick says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the records that researchers make to track colony health – looking at both sides of every frame, counting cells, recording so much data that it takes hours of number-crunching to understand what the data is saying – entirely too time-consuming for regular, routine monitoring.

Simplicity Leads to Success
Whether it’s the paper or the electronic version, the simplicity of the Healthy Colony Checklist makes it easy for beekeepers to use when they are suited up to visit their bees.

The ease of inspections is critical, because inspections need to be done every seven to 10 days. “Colony health can change so much in that time,” Dick says. Pests (like Varroa mites), viruses, and a variety of other stressors continue to present increasing challenges to honey bee colony health.

A Happy Medium
The Healthy Colony Checklist is a happy medium. It gives beekeepers a common set of factors to discuss, and it’s a quick and easy way to know if a colony is healthy. “It’s fast,” notes Dick. “You can assess a colony in 5-10 minutes, and the management falls out of it clearly. If it’s done right on your phone, then there is no post-data manipulation.”

Even so, as a new approach to record-keeping, the Healthy Colony Checklist was bound to face some skeptics. “I think most people were skeptical at the beginning, thinking that this was just another record-keeping system and that they really didn’t know how to assess some of the conditions on the Checklist,” Dick says.

But that’s a strong point, Dick continues. “If you don’t know how to assess a condition, then that means you have a knowledge gap which you need to fill.”

An Educational Component
Understanding knowledge gaps is another advantage – what Dick refers to as the “educational component” of the Healthy Colony Checklist.

“If beekeepers can assess each of the six conditions, plus the sub-conditions that lead to these, then they will be much more informed and knowledgeable,” he says.

To help in that process, HiveTracks is interested in partnering with Bayer on a training program to ensure beekeepers know how to assess the conditions, sub-conditions that make up a healthy hive, as well as the fatal conditions that would lead to dropping a colony from further efforts to nurse it back to health. “We would use the conditions and sub-conditions in a training process or program to help improve beekeepers’ understanding of not only how to conduct these assessments, but also to improve their understanding of their bees and management,” Dick says.

What’s Next?
In addition to the training and implementations in HiveTracks and BroodMinder, the Healthy Colony Checklist soon will be available in AirTable Universe, an online platform where AirTable database templates can be published so they can be freely shared with anyone in the world.

AirTable is a way for even more beekeepers to access and use the Checklist. “It’s also a way to get our innovation and tremendous effort out there and recognized,” Dick explains. “It’s taken a lot of work from our Bayer Bee Care team of Kim Huntzinger, Jim Dempster, Morgan Dunn, myself and others using the Checklist constantly and summarizing the data to get to this point. This is like the final report of our efforts.”

And though it may be the final report, Dick plans to continue development and training, and leaves us with at least one more teaser of what’s to come… Stay tuned for “a Healthy Colony Checklist for bumble bees!!”