Why keep records?
A colony is a complex organism of tens of thousands of bees. The sophisticated behaviors that occur within the beehive are not always evident during an inspection. It is often a gradual trend, rather than a rapid change, that will act as a clue for the beekeeper that something is amiss.
For this reason, many beekeepers keep track of what is happening in their hives, at quite a detailed level. As the beekeeper gains experience, there will be a wealth of information in the record. This can add historical and environmental context to decisions that are eventually made.
All in all, the recommendation from PerfectBee is to implement at least some form of record keeping from the outset.
Tracking by queen
One of the early decisions you should make when setting out as a new beekeeper is at what level you wish to track your bees. If you have more than one hive, which is highly recommended, you will be tempted to track by hive. Many beekeepers do this by assigning an identifier to each hive.
However, this approach can be a missed opportunity. It isn't at all uncommon to move queens between hives. It's worth reflecting on what you are recording. You are not interested in the performance of the hive - but the performance of a colony, including the queen.
So consider a tracking process that tracks based on the location of your queens. Then if you move a queen between hives, it is simple to keep track. For each queen, note details such as her age (as close as is known), the color with which she is marked (if she is), the original source of the queen and so on.
What to track
For each inspection, record situational and environmental information (temperature, humidity, etc), including date, weather conditions and so on.
It is increasingly common to record the weight of your hive. This varies considerably through the ebb-and-flow of the seasons and can be extremely helpful in understanding the buildup of honey.
At each inspection make an estimate of brood counts, in its various phases. These can be estimated rather quickly once the beekeeper has a reasonable sense of "cells per inch", across the frame.
Track the number of eggs, uncapped larvae and capped brood. This can uncover small changes in the pace with which the queen is laying. For example, if she is laying at a reasonably constant pace, the ration of uncapped larvae to eggs should be roughly 2:1 (since eggs take three days to hatch into larvae and larvae are uncapped for six days). If the ratio of larvae to eggs decreases then, that might suggest she has increased her egg-laying pace.
It is also good to track the number of queen cells seen during an inspection as well as drone cells. Bees are genetically inclined to produce 25-30% of brood as drones in the wild, although this is higher than most beekeepers would want. But if a queen is lost, worker bees may lay eggs. Without their ability to fertilize eggs, the results are drones. Lots of drones! Tracking drone cells can help alert a beekeeper to queenlessness.
Recording and interpreting these numbers and the corresponding ratios is a vital tool in the beekeeper's flow of useful, actionable information.
As well as the raw counts, the brood pattern can be educational. A strong queen will create a brood pattern with few gaps, although all will leave at least some. But a spotty brood pattern can be a sign of a weak queen.
As you undertake each inspection, record your bee's mood. Bees react to all sorts of stimulus and it won't always be easy to identify the direct cause of an unexpected behavior. However, if you see aggressive behavior from bees that are normally docile, that is a clue you will want to investigate further, certainly if this spans multiple inspections.
To some extent, all colonies experience disease or mites at some point in their existence. Many times the problem goes away naturally, while at others a treatment regime may help, if the beekeeper is so inclined. Keeping an accurate record of diseases, as they are discovered and potentially treated, can help tremendously.
Medications and treatments
Since bees produce a food that we eat (honey), many jurisdictions require records to be kept of any medications administered to the colony. Beyond a potential legal requirement, recording this information - and the response within the colony - is vital information.
How did you feel about the inspection? How confident are you that your bees are in good shape? What are your biggest concerns?
With the passage of time, these more subjective comments will become a very enjoyable and nostalgic memory jogger, later in your beekeeping career.
Methods for keeping records
Pen and paper
The old fashioned, traditional ways still work pretty well. A simple, blank notebook will do the trick, although some purpose-made beekeeping journals are available too. For the individual beekeeper, this may be a reasonable initial approach.
For those who have a mobile device some clever apps are available, such as Hive Tracks. The advantages of these apps can be evident in their time-saving data entry features. But that is just the start.
The real value in such apps is in their reporting element. Their ability to "crunch" and visualize the numbers reported, potentially exposes essential information that could easily have been missed.
Sharing and comparing
Beyond this, more app developers are investing in sharing and community-related features. As beekeepers look to "save the bees", there are considerable benefits in having colony data uploaded and aggregated. Taken to its conclusion, this has the potential to greatly increase our awareness of the plight of bees, across the country and, indeed, the world.
Dealing with logistical challenges
As beekeepers, we have a lot to do and see when we carry out a hive inspection. We also want to do so in a reasonably brief timeframe, to allow our bees to get things back on track after we have shaken things up for the day!
This all means that a fair amount of manual dexterity and discipline are necessary to undertake the inspection AND keep good records. While this is OK for some, for others it's just too much hassle and, therefore, the record keeping part may suffer.
One way to address this is to record your progress audibly. Take a small voice recorder, turn it on and then just describe what you see. While the neighbors may consider that you have an uncomfortably close relationship with your bees as you talk to them, you will know that you are effectively talking to yourself (though, on reflection, that doesn't sound any better!). Back in the comfort of your living room, listen back and transfer what you said to your records.
A step further is to hook up a Go Pro to your headgear. While this isn't so outlandish as it seems, it may be a bridge too far for many beekeepers, especially when they are eager to get out and enjoy the inspection. However, there are few things more valuable than commentary over a video of the inspection you just conducted, especially you have the ability to zoom in closely.
A simple message here - find your balance.
Determine what level of detail you want to track, how you plan to track, then just do it and do it consistently. The granularity of the data you record affects the value of your records, but the most important thing is to put a system in place.