Why and How to Monitor Honey Bee Colony Health
The Need to Monitor Honey Bee Colony Health
Over the past three decades, Varroa destructor, Acarapis woodi, Aethina tumida, numerous viruses, and a variety of other stressors, have presented increasing challenges to honey bee colony health. The result, in recent years, is that colony health can change dramatically over a short period of time. Therefore, monitoring honey bee colonies is essential, and is a key component to the practice of Integrated Pest Management and Integrated Apiculture. However, there are many ways to monitor and inspect honey bee colonies, ranging from infrequent casual entrance examinations, to opening hives for detailed quantitative assessments on a regular schedule. Inspections may, or may not, include collection of samples for microscopic, chemical, or molecular analyses. There is also a range of recordkeeping forms and methods, as well as many versions of how inspection observations are processed and used. This all makes for a very complicated and variable approach to monitoring and management of honey bee colony health.
To efficiently and effectively protect and improve colony health, it is now essential to monitor colonies more frequently, even as often as weekly. A method for weekly colony assessments needs to be easy to use, fast, thorough, and yield observations that are meaningful and easy to interpret for practical management decision-making by apiarists, apiculturists, and apiologists.
The three questions you need answered by the end of a quick colony inspection:
- Is the colony healthy?
- If not, why?
- What needs to be done to fix the problem?
The starting point for the development of a practical colony assessment system that answers these questions was a simple high level description which captures the basics of a healthy colony.
During an assessment, a managed honey bee colony can be considered “healthy” if it does not have any apparent pests and diseases, and seasonally appropriate strength and health sustainability factors are present or can be managed with a reasonable amount of inputs by the beekeeper as needed.
From this description, a more detailed description was crafted which identified six key assessable conditions of a healthy colony.
Conditions of a Healthy Colony
To be considered “healthy”, a honey bee colony must satisfy ALL of the following conditions, as seasonally appropriate:
- All stages and instars of brood present (E1-3, L1-6, P1-11)
- Sufficient adult bees and age structure to care for brood and perform all tasks of the colony
- A young, productive, laying queen present
- Sufficient nutritious forage and food stores available
- No (apparent) stressors present (including signs and symptoms*) that would lead to reduced colony survival or disruption of normal development
- Suitable hive space for current and near-term colony needs that is sanitary and defendable, and has room for egg laying and food storage
* Sign = observable reaction; Symptom = experienced by individual
Health Colony Checklist Form Design Criteria
- Usable for weekly assessment of the six healthy colony conditions
- Quick, memorable, and user-friendly; ✔ (present/ok) & X (management needed)
- Self explanatory, but include sufficient instructions for added clarity
- Area for notes and management required to correct any deficiencies
- Easily summarized and communicated
Use Guidelines of HCC Form
- Observer and recorder preferred, although one experienced person can observe and record when only a small number of colonies need to be inspected. Audio recording for later transcription may work for some, as well.
- Know / learn how to assess each of the six conditions. Use checkmark if a condition is satisfied, X if not, or if unsure, note this and learn how to assess this condition accurately and with confidence.
- In the box to the right of the each Condition description, record a note of what needs to be done to correct any deficiencies (i.e. condition not met) before next assessment. No need to be elaborate or overly detailed.
- Use the bow at the bottom of the form for more general notes.
- At the end of the assessments for the day, record the findings for each colony in the HCC summary spreadsheet. Hiding Condition Met columns will provide a simple task list by colony.
The HCC system goes a long way to making more frequent colony assessments and better management of honey bee colony health achievable.
A spreadsheet to record and summarize HCC data is available upon request from firstname.lastname@example.org. The sheet is currently fully functioning, however, guidelines for use are still being developed. Feedback and questions related to the HCC or the summary spreadsheet are encourage.