Most beekeepers don’t keep adequate records. It’s that simple. Comprehensive long-range bee management and financial record keeping systems are essential to maximize efficiency and maintain profitability in any endeavor.
A visit to any beeyard usually reveals colonies marked by sticks, stones or other readily available materials placed on each colony’s cover. The specific arrangement of these materials may indicate everything from status of the queen to whether a colony requires food.
Two problems arise with this kind of record keeping. It is short range; once the status of the colony changes and the materials are rearranged, the previous information is lost. The system is also unique to each operator, rendering it non-transferrable and non-translatable to others. Part time employees or bee inspectors are unlikely to know the the meaning of such records.
Only if records are written will they have any historical value. This is an important point because setting them on paper takes precious time. Unfortunately, there is no substitute. Record keeping is just as necessary as visiting the beeyard if the beekeeper wants to have any more than a superficial idea of the current status and long range productivity of an operation.
Perhaps the biggest problem with record keeping is deciding what information to save. The sheer volume of potential data that can be collected is staggering. Therefore, the beekeeper must carefully choose what is most important for each particular enterprise. Digital technology is helping in this arena in a number of ways (see discussion below).
At a minimum, records of queens and beeyards should be retained to help track honey production. Marking queens permits the beekeeper to judge productivity of individuals purchased from different breeders, to determine a queen’s age and whether supersedure has occurred.
An international queen marking system exists that correlates colors to specific years. Kits of small numbered plastic disks may also be purchased from some suppliers. An alternative system is clipping the queen’s wing. If one requeens every other year, the right wing can be clipped for odd years, the left for even. Queens are picked up by the wings and gently held between thumb and index finger. A small scissors should be used and never clip more than half the wing. An advantage to this for the beekeeper is that the queen is unable to accompany a swarm and so the bees will often return to a colony rather than leave the premises. However, there is a risk the queen will be lost in the process, having exited the hive but being unable to return.
Beeyard information should also be kept on the kinds of pollen and nectar flows experienced each year correlated with weather conditions and honey production. In order to determine the potential quality of a certain location, at least five years of solid data are necessary. One study contained thirty years of data. This is Minnesota data, which should be taken into consideration given that climate. Ditto for the New York bee wellness program, which would be extremely different than the southern U.S. or subtropical Florida.
It is fairly easy to weigh the amount of honey taken from each yard. Even an aggregate number derived from all supers in a yard would provide a baseline production figure that could be compared among different locations and across seasons.
Many beekeepers monitor the weight of colonies by keeping a colony on a platform scale in every apiary and recording the weight changes on a regular basis. Unfortunately, records from a single colony are often not satisfactory. Those from several hives in each yard would be more desirable. Several designs for scale hives exist on the World Wide Web. A most interesting invention called the “Nectar Detector” has been developed by Jim Fischer, which appears to take into consideration many of the pitfalls one finds in many weighing devices as noted in NASA’s Honey Bee Net initiative. The latter is being incorporated into a Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) initiative.
Financial information is also important. Many beekeepers do not know how much it costs to produce a pound of honey. Pricing the product becomes difficult under these circumstances. Budgeting costs and returns from each bee-related activity allows a better view of the profitability of a beekeeping venture.
Contributor David McFawn has produced a spreadsheet specifically for beekeepers that seeks to help them make financial decisions. This effort has been ongoing over a number of years. The latest rendition has a queen-rearing and nucleus (NUC) production module that was added in October, 2015.
Fortunately, digital technology is providing better record-keeping possibilities each year, although the newness of this sometimes can be problematic in terms of long-range use and continuing user support. Some depend on visiting the apiary like Hive Tracks and Beetight; others provide the possibility of remotely accessing the information (Arnia). There are bound to be more in the future given the pace of information technology change.