"Let your bees tell you what they need. They know what they're doing." Tibor Szabo bee-whisperer extraordinaire.
Last night I spoke to the wonderful Urban Toronto Beekeepers' Association about record keeping. I want to thank them for the opportunity, not just to see them again, but to work through some thoughts I've been having about how my approach to beekeeping has evolved. I promised that I would provide my PowerPoint presentation, so here it is, along with a brief synopsis of my talk:
I never really felt like the inspection recording systems I was using were working for me. First I tried developing my own form, using the best of the examples I came across. That worked for a couple of years. Then, geek that I am, I tried a couple of the on-line program apps, even setting up QR codes for each of my hives and religiously ticking off the appropriate boxes. Until I didn't. Then I looked at other ways beekeepers kept hive records, like Mike Palmer who puts strips of duct tape on the outer cover and marks them with a Sharpie, or Brent Hawkins who uses push pins to signify necessary actions. But none of them seemed right for me. I didn't know why.
Then one day a couple of years ago I was fussing about something to Tibor Szabo, and his comment to me changed the way I think about record keeping and how I was approaching inspections. He said, "Julie, you need to just let your bees tell you what they need. They know what they're doing." Notwithstanding the fact that Tibor is a third generation beekeeper who has been beekeeping for 40 years and knows everything and I was just 5 years in and knew virtually nothing, this resonated. It made me realize why the 'tick-off' reports don't work for me. This process of ticking boxes, 'I see this, I see that', 'I did this, I did that', didn't really help me understand the complexity of my hives, what they were doing, or why they were doing it. Or what I should be doing. So I started to think about what would I be doing differently if I was following the bees' lead. And here's what I came up with:
First, I would be using all my senses. I would be listening, smelling, looking and touching. Not just thinking (although that too.)
Second, I would be considering my hives over time, not just inspection by inspection. I'd be looking for changes. I'd slow down, giving the hive time to adjust or heal, if possible, before taking action myself.
And third, I would be seeing my hives in their context. That is,I'd recognize that what's going on in the forage area and bee yard may be having an effect on the hives, and vice-versa. That there's an symbiosis there, maybe even an explanation.
I've always paid attention to the weather, to what's in bloom, to signs of pests or predators, but I started to be more deliberate in my observations. What does the bee yard feel like? Happy? Stressed? Defensive? How do the bees sound, what other sounds can I hear that might affect the bees? What does the yard smell like? Honey? Flowers?
I started spending more time looking at the outside of hives and doing it more frequently. Are nectar and pollen coming in? What kind, how much? Are they keeping their hive clean, carrying out the dead, bringing out compromised larvae? Do the the bees look healthy? Are there fuzzy new bees as well as mature ones? Are the guard bees busy? Are they defensive to me? Is there evidence of robbing, drifting? Are they having a robust 'playtime'? Is the buzzing happy or frantic? How does the activity compare to other hives? What's happening on the landing board? How does it compare to earlier inspections?
And now when I go into the hive, first I listen. I'm still learning to listen, but I can pretty well tell when a hive is upset, maybe queenless or getting ready to swarm (barn door, anyone?) But even more, I listen for contented buzzing. Is the population up from last time? Down? Bigger/smaller than other hives? What does the brood pattern look like? I keep track of how old the queen is and where she is from, so is the brood pattern appropriate to her age? How does the brood relate the the level of flow? Is the queen slowing down? If I don't see her, do I see larvae and eggs? Are the bees calm, anxious, angry? Why? Are they making good comb, nice sticky propolis? I look for signs of a healthy hive more than signs of problems.
And then I make notes. I don't use a form or app any more. I keep a small loose leaf notebook with a page for each hive and I just write down what seems important to note. I don't note much, only things I want to remember. Plus anything I've done, anything I want to keep an eye on, or things 'to do'. I don't even note when I've seen signs of the queen, unless there is something unusual. I take notes that will guide me over time and that help me learn. I especially admit my mistakes here, in the hope that I won't keep making the same ones. (I log in my varroa treatments, too, although those take place in the winter.)
This process works for me. It helps me think through what I'm experiencing, not just tick boxes on a form. It helps me be more present with my bees, to be calmer and more trusting of their instincts and processes; and that makes me more trusting of my own. This works for me because it is consistent with my beekeeping values and style. And I guess that's my take-away point. There isn't any 'right' way to keep records, there's just what works for you, how you beekeep - and your bees.