Little-known fact. I like to name my queens. Above is a picture of Cold introducing Queen Belle-a-Donna of ‘The Split’. I figure it helps me remember where they came from and who they are. One of my most productive hives this year is headed by “Queen Persephone the Ebon”. She is so named because her offspring almost universally have incredibly dark black stripes, and she’s almost purely black herself. Seems like this would help, right? So here’s the problem I’m running into… I currently can’t remember, when looking at my very poor record keeping, whether Queen Persephone is the queen that came with a package from Northwest Bee Supply or a requeen I bought from Miller Compound Honeybees and Agriculture.
That might not seem like a particularly big issue (it wasn’t one of my big three rookie mistakes). Honestly, it probably isn’t a big deal. Especially if you’re just getting started (and if you haven’t yet, go here and learn why you should!). But, it is a small part of a bigger issue. The issue of what happens when you don’t follow proper beekeeping record keeping.
What Method for Record Keeping?
Honestly, there is no specific method of record keeping that you HAVE to follow in order to be a good beekeeper. Some people like to use video recordings. There are apps out there for your smart phone to help keep tabs. I’ve heard of people drawing on their hives with chalk! Myself, I use a bunch of 3×5 inch notebooks. I am discovering more and more every year that the how of my record keeping is a lot less important than the ‘how often’ of my record keeping.
Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the common methods.
Video/Photo Record Keeping
They say a picture can say a thousand words. That is definitely true when it comes to beekeeping. Being able to actually look at what a frame looked like inside the hive, after you are away from the hive, is a valuable thing. It’s also true that when you’re looking at a frame, you are in essence looking at hundreds of individual bees, all of which are moving around. There’s no real way in the moment to see everything that is there to see. If you freeze that moment in a picture, or video, however, you can revisit that moment as many times as you need to to find what you need to find.
Video and Photo record keeping require you to juggle an expensive piece of equipment and a fragile frame of delicate bees at the same time. Your hands and gloves get sticky and unwieldy when working with bees. Dealing with the camera in the middle of an inspection is far from ideal. Likewise, you have to be pretty careful about organizing your photographs if you have more than one beehive (which is always recommended). Otherwise, you might get lost from photo to photo as to which hive you were inspecting when you took the picture!
App Record Keeping
Nowadays there is an app for everything. That’s certainly true for beekeeping, where there are a goodly number of apps designed to make record keeping easier. Some of them offer simple recording systems by tagging your hives with little notes or symbols depending upon what you see. It certainly formalizes everything and keeps your notes in line with one another.
However, I’ve found that most of the issues that apply to video record keeping apply to breaking out my smartphone while elbow deep in a beehive. You’re still handling an expensive piece of equipment and a fragile frame of ‘your girls’. You’re still dealing with stickiness. Add to that, most smart phones don’t work through a pair of gloves. Whether you’re using heavy duty beekeeping gloves or just simple latex gloves.
Another issue with doing your record keeping on a smartphone app is that all the formalization of the app tends to limit your ability to be detailed in your record keeping. It may have symbols for which hive is doing better than what, but you can write a far more useful description than +, -, or =. Some apps won’t allow you that option, however.
Chalk Record Keeping
The main advantage to the chalk record keeping is that your notes are on the hive. There’s no forgetting which hive you left the note for when you come out to the yard. Likewise, it’s quick and easy, which we all love the idea of, right?
Chalk, however, washes off. Here in Washington state, that’s a pretty real concern no matter what time of the year it is. Likewise, there’s only so much in the way of notes you’re going to be able to keep in chalk. There’s limited space, afterall. Also, you’re not going to keep long-term notes that way, and sometimes it is important to be able to go back over the whole season, rather than just remembering what was important last inspection.
Notebook Record Keeping
Keep in mind I am totally biased towards notebook record keeping. With that said, notebook record keeping’s biggest advantage is that you can keep a permanent record of a specific hive. You can record any and everything you want, in as much or as little detail as you desire. You aren’t held down by any constraints of space or symbols used. Whatever you want to track, you can track.
Likewise, while a pencil might get a little sticky from being written with, you can wash it a tad easier than a smartphone… Trust me, I’ve tried both. There’s no expensive equipment to worry about, just good old fashioned paper and pen (or pencil).
I’ll admit, there ARE some disadvantages to record keeping with a notebook. The biggest is the loss of the advantage of pictures. The second is that while yes, it’s dangerous to one-hand your smartphone while one-handing a frame of bees, it’s more possible than holding a notepad and writing in it with one hand while holding a frame of bees in the other. Unless you’ve got a handy writing surface in your apiary, you pretty much need both hands for taking notes.
How To Improve Your Record Keeping
Whichever method you’re using for your record keeping, there are ways for you to improve. Like most things, I feel there are some important principles that need to be implemented in order to find success. Study, organization, and consistency.
Studying Your Record Keeping
I’m not trying to get you to spend the day reading books on record keeping. Trust me, you’ll get bored. What I’m suggesting is that you take 15 minutes to brainstorm your current method. And the other methods you now know about. Set aside that time and really think about where your record keeping is lacking.
Organizing your Record Keeping
One of the great facts of life is this: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Darned if I know who first said that. In this case, it means if you don’t plan out and organize your record keeping system, you’re planning to do a poor job at keeping the records you need. Believe me, I’ve planned to fail since I started beekeeping. It keeps getting rubbed in my face when I try to remember something… and can’t.
Consistency in Record Keeping
Once you’ve made your plan, stick to it. No matter what. Just don’t let yourself deviate. It’s better not to get to that last hive, than not to make the notes you will need on the first hive. You can always inspect on another day, but you can NEVER go back in time and remember what you saw earlier.
Why I’m Sharing This
I’m definitely not trying to set myself up as a master beekeeper and tell you how to do it all. That’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about learning how to be self-sufficient. TOGETHER. That means sometimes, we’re stumbling along at the same time. In this case, I am definitely stumbling along. I have taken the time to study my current practices. I’ve taken the time to write a new plan. I figure you will benefit from the same experience. No matter how many years you’ve been beekeeping, there is never a bad time to look at what you’ve been doing, and improve it.
In the spirit of working together to improve. Please, take a moment and help me out! What did I miss? What method of record keeping words best for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!