Sentinel Apiary Monitoring to Increase Honey Production: A USAD Specialty Crop Block Grant from Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Project Background

Tennessee beekeepers have had 27 – 51% of their colonies die annually since 2010, according to a national survey by the Bee Informed Partnership (beeinformed.org). This is similar to the level of loss experienced nationally as 26 – 45% for the same time period. The parasitic varroa mite is the most common, widespread, and severe problem beekeepers experience. The mite reproduces in the developing brood of the honey bee and their population peaks usually late in the summer after a full season of brood production. Many treatments exist to reduce mite levels, but the mite population quickly rebounds in many cases. These varroa transfer viruses that can cause sudden death and reduction in populations even after treatments have been applied. Therefore, beekeepers need to continually monitor their colonies throughout the season to determine if management practices are controlling the parasite at low levels, before damage by viruses has occurred. Many varroa treatments only work under certain temperature and lifecycle conditions and may not reduce levels sufficiently. Varroa monitoring requires counting the small mites after dislodging them from adult bees. This can be a time consuming process.

A colony ready for inspection and sampling. Throughout this program, colonies were inspected for disease and health metrics, including queen status, colony strength, disease observations, and Varroa and Nosema parasite levels. These evaluations were invaluable to inform management decisions. Information Technology tools tested in this program were very helpful in establishing protocols for these activities, organizing, and visualizing the data to be able to make actionable decisions.

Nosema disease can also be a widespread problem, but may not always be present. There is only one treatment for Nosema at this time, the antibiotic Fumadil-B. The only way to diagnose this disease is with a microscope, which few beekeepers own or know how to operate. With monitoring, a beekeeper can determine whether or not Nosema is a problem, avoiding costly and wasteful treating of an antibiotic when it is not necessary.

To produce honey, beekeepers need to know their disease levels to inform management as well as to monitor the growth in their colonies to determine when to add honey supers. Alternatively, colonies that area not growing during the honey producing season, can be an indicator of poor health. Starvation can also kill many colonies outside of the honey production season. Monitoring the weight gain, or loss of the colony can provide an indication of colony health and the nectar flow in the environment. This provides better feedback on when colonies need management to improve honey production or colony health. New, electronic hive scales can provide colony weight reported through web interfaces and mobile devices, however the initial cost of these monitoring systems is a barrier and their practical usage is not well tested.

The Bee Informed Partnership has developed a Sentinel Apiary monitoring program to provide annual sample processing for 8 months during the season to determine varroa and Nosema parasite levels (bip2.beeinformed.org/sentinel). This grant set out to establish Sentinel Apiaries in Tennessee and test out electronic hive monitoring, and other colony monitoring technology and services to monitor disease and colony growth over time. Beekeepers not in the program are able to follow results online to inform regional trends in parasite levels and nectar flow.

Data Collection

Eighteen Sentinel Apiary kits were purchased from the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) over a period of 3 years. The Sentinel Apiary kits provide data forms and sample bottles to sample up to 8 colonies over 6 months. In one year, supplementary colony data was collected using the Bee Informed Partnership mobile app in addition to Sentinel Apiary sampling kits. Varroa mite sampling and hive metrics were collected both using the Sentinel Kits and ‘in-house’ mite counts to provide a comparison of utilization of the Sentinel Apiary Kit service in contrast with ‘in-house’ mite sampling and utilization of the mobile app. Nine electronic hive scales from two separate vendors (Broodminder and Solution Bee) were deployed to multiple apiaries. Apiary management software was licensed from the commercial vendor HiveTracks, which provides a mobile app and web interface to record management and condition observations at apiaries. The HiveTracks app was used to collect management data in 9 apiaries by 1 beekeeper. These 4 adopted innovations were used to collect data through the season and this information used to inform management decisions the beekeepers made.

The project collected 779 colony observations through the Bee Informed Partnership Sentinel Apiary program and Bee Informed Partnership mobile app, including hive strength measures (frames of bees), disease observations, and Varroa and Nosema diagnostic samples. The BIP colony measures were taken in 23 apiaries among 3 Tennessee counties managed by 3 different beekeepers.

Analysis Highlights: Nosema

Varroa and Nosema levels from BIP sampling programs showed consistently in all apiaries that Nosema levels tended to be low and of little importance. On average during the 2 year period, about 250 colonies were managed among the three beekeepers. A standard beekeeping practice is to control Nosema disease in apiaries, by feeding 1.5 gallons treated feed to each colony in spring and fall as a prophylactic, without monitoring for the disease. For the colonies in the monitored apiaries, this would be 1.5 gallons X 2 seasons X 2 years X 250 colonies = 1,500 gallons treated feed. The Fumadil product costs $200 per 500 gram bottle to make 110 gallons of feed. 1,500 / 110 = 13.6, requiring 14 bottles at $200 per bottle = $2,800 for the treatment product. Sugar to mix with water to make feed syrup is prepared at the rate of 50 pounds per 10 gallons = 750 pounds to make 1,500 gallons. The price of sugar varies depending on source, but we can figure materials for treatment plus sugar = at least $4,000 plus labor for a treatment that would have been unnecessary if applied without sampling  due to the assumption normally made that Nosema disease is a common enough problem to treat prophylactically. The evidence in this study area is that sampling is economically warranted as opposed to treating prophylactically.

Analysis Highlights: Varroa

We found that in all apiaries, Varroa infestation was a significant problem. All apiaries in all years exceeded economic damage threshold of 3 mites per 100 bees in numerous colonies in each apiary. This information informed us to treat for this pest and to continue monitoring and treating to control it. In instances where one or more beekeepers decided not to treat, the monitoring provided feedback to us about the results from lack of treatment and would explain any colony losses and damages suspected as Varroa mite issues, to be confirmed as such from the data, informing future management. This was clearly an invaluable activity to undertand Varroa population trends in the colonies. I added reports and figures from each apiary period as supplementary information on the web version of this report linked as Additional Information for other beekeeper so peruse and see the results of varroa testing for themselves.

In one operation, we did numerous mite counts on our own before sample processing was available via the BIP sampling program to provide supplementary data, and comparisons in labor from in-house mite counting compared to BIP sample processing. Anecdotally, we found it convenient to use the same protocol and the BIP sampling putting the bees in sample bottles for later processing. We then processed those samples later, using a similar alcohol wash protocol. The labor involved was not complicated but did take some time, and it would be a reasonable choice to either justify paying for sample processing at this scale, or to do it in house if sufficient labor is available, which can of course be very difficult in agriculture businesses.

Analysis Highlights: Operational data

The number of colonies in apiaries fluctuates seasonally as colonies are divided up as normal management, or lost to disease or other causes, or moved. Both the BIP mobile app and the HiveTracks app allowed for tracking this operational data, as well as management practices that is useful for general logistics of understanding when colonies were treated, where they are, and when and where the perished in any events. Visualizations of this data can be very helpful for beekeepers as scale of any operation increases. Utilizing mobile apps for this purpose can offer many benefits beyond more traditional pen and paper data collecting methods.

Analysis Highlights: Hive Scales

Use of Electronic hive monitoring hardware was not considered particularly useful as used by this program. Problems were encountered early on with software functioning for connected the hive scales to a unified BIP portal due to limitations in the hive scale hardware as opposed to their advertised ability to do that. In addition, some hives scales were previously used, and therefore a few years old and encountered hardware and software failures early on. Therefore, some program participants data was unavailable for analysis, but at least some data would have been accessible per participant. Another problem was, in the instances where hive scales were used in a way analysis could be done on the data, hives were chosen that ended up dying, or under performing, resulting in data results that were just not very interesting. Considering the high cost of electronic hive monitoring hardware, and the questionable utility of using them in this case, there seemed to be much greater affect in the monitoring and sampling programs instead.

Supplementary Information

The following Supplementary Reports, Figures, and Charts are provide here for your pursue. All of these materials were provided through the Bee Informed Partnership Sentinel Apiary sampling program. Some of these figures are publicly available at Research.beeinformed.org, while other reports are copies of the reports received by participating beekeepers. All beekeeper identities are protected in these reports. The following copyright information must accompany any reuse of these reports.

Bee Informed Partnership Copyright and Reproduction Agreement: Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) is responsible for all source data and holds the copyright for all information presented here. All of the results generated by BIP and published here represent an unbiased assessment of any product or process, and BIP results are not endorsements of commercial products, protocols, or services. Unless stated otherwise, BIP supports the reproduction and reuse of these results, publications and figures for scientific and educational purposes, at no cost, provided that BIP’s ownership, copyright and non-endorsement status are acknowledged. When citing any of the information, figures, or other material sourced from the BIP website, unless it has been published elsewhere as a journal article, please also include in your citation: the year published (when available), title, web address and date obtained.