The legendary management consultant, Peter Drucker, may well have kept bees; I don’t know. He certainly made a vast contribution to twentieth-century management theory, and I’m sure his influence will stretch far into the current century too. He is well known for, amongst other things, these sayings:
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
I reckon these pearls of wisdom apply to beekeepers whether they are running it as a business or a pleasant pastime. Firstly, keeping good quality records is very helpful as well as enjoyable to those of us with a slightly nerdy tendency. At this time of the year, I read through my inspection records and take time to reflect on how things went last season. I also make my plans for the year ahead. Things rarely go to plan, but I find it helpful to have one.
The way I record what goes on in my hives and apiaries is as follows:
- after inspecting a colony, I record my observations by voice memo into my phone
- before I leave the apiary, I take a video recording, panning around all hives
- Later, at home, I use the video and audio recorded on my phone to help me update my inspection record, which is a multi-tabbed spreadsheet. I have one tab per hive.
Too Much Information?
I keep track of many things so that I can improve. Drucker would approve. For example, I know where each queen in each hive came from and can, therefore, select possible breeder queens. I can follow the growth of the colony, whether or when queen cells were made, temperament, the honey harvested and sugar syrup fed, disease treatments applied, mite counts, and so on. I also have an apiary map which I keep updated as new colonies start and others die or move elsewhere.
As at today, I have 27 colonies of bees in three apiaries (one has just got started). Twelve of these colonies are full hives on either single or double brood boxes, which leaves fifteen that are nucleus colonies. Of the nucleus colonies, six are on BS National frames and the rest on my prefered Langstroth frames. I have started keeping a few National nucs so that I can sell them to other beekeepers. There isn’t much demand for Langstroth nucs in England, sadly.
Only a tool, but a good one
Being a genius record keeper won’t make you a great beekeeper. In the long run, I suspect that it will help you to improve if you use those records to good effect. I already know which hives I’m expecting to re-queen next season when I have queens available. There are a couple with older queens, one which is too grumpy for my liking, and a couple which have never made much surplus honey. Assuming they survive the winter, I have also identified my breeder queens; those who will be the mothers to the queens I raise next summer.
When I visited Olivarez Honey Bees in California, I discussed record-keeping with Ali Churiel, who keeps track of their 16,000 colonies based in California and Montana. If she can track that many, I should be able to cope with mine.
Bees are Great Managers
Regarding Drucker’s “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” the bees are managers par excellance. In this context, I see the beekeeper as the “leader.” The bees will manage their colony in the best way they can given the circumstances in which they find themselves. Every time the beekeeper opens up a hive and pulls out frames, something changes.
The bees will manage themselves very well, mostly. The job of the beekeeper, as leader of this merry enterprise, is to persuade them to do the “right thing” (from the beekeepers perspective). It’s important not to try to fight the bees; to force them to go against their nature. That would be folly. The beekeeper’s job is to time his or her manipulations to utilise the bees’ instincts for gain. When conditions are right, the bees may swarm, but this instinct can be used to raise queens instead. Or before the bees become short of space, we can add more boxes for them to grow into, and as they expand, we provide yet more boxes and profit from the surplus honey that they store.
Wise Words from those who know
Randy Oliver told me: “To be successful, you need strong, healthy colonies, so anything weak has to go. That needs to be your number one focus, and the second thing is timing; you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.”
Murray McGregor says, “The thing that will tell you how bees like to be kept is the bees themselves. We think that we need rest, we need holidays, it’s good to have quiet times, but bees don’t like that. Bees love to be working. They work because they want to. They breed when they want to, they swarm when they want to and you have to work with the bees’ system and not against it. As soon as you are fighting your bees, you are not getting the best out of them.”