A new, free University of California Cooperative Extension online training course to provide standardized procedures for apiary inspectors to evaluate the strength of honey bee colonies is designed to benefit both growers and beekeepers.

“It helps assure growers that they’re getting what they paid for in terms of the pollination abilities of the bees they’re renting, and it supports beekeepers who should be compensated fairly for the quality of the bees they’re providing,” says Shannon Mueller, a Fresno County Cooperative Extension farm advisor.

She developed the course for growers, beekeepers and apiary inspectors after observing a number of apiary inspections over the years.

“I saw a lot of variability in how inspectors evaluate the strength of colonies,” she says. “Just observing bee activity at the entrance of a hive or lifting the lid and looking at the quantity of bees on the top bars isn’t enough to properly assess colony strength. Our goal was to come up with a uniform protocol for inspectors to do their job and provide a level playing field for growers and beekeepers.”

 

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Mueller’s work in developing the course supported at least one change by county ag commissioner inspectors. In many areas, inspectors evaluated colony strength by removing and examining each frame in a hive. In almonds these inspections are often performed when the weather is still cool, and it can be hard on the bees, she notes.

However, UC research by bee expert Robbin Thorp shows that assessing the size of the cluster in the center of the hive, which can be determined with less stress on the bees, correlates well with results from inspecting bee activity by withdrawing individual frames.

“So, the ag commissioners have now agreed to allow inspectors to use cluster counts, instead of frame inspections, to evaluate colony strength,” she says. “Beekeepers see this as a definite improvement in how the inspections are done in almonds.”

The course features nine training modules covering such topics as basic honey bee biology, hive inspection practices, and types and use of equipment for conducting the inspections. The modules vary in length. The longest runs for 21 minutes. Each includes a short quiz at the end with answers. The course also includes two sections for practicing skills learned in the course. One covers devaluating the brood area. The other shows how to evaluate bee coverage of frames. A cluster count skills practice section is coming soon.

In addition to offering easy access to learning, the online course also makes it easy to revise or add new training modules as needed, Mueller says.

“The course is a handy way to learn about the inspection practices or to refresh your knowledge at the beginning of the pollination period or at any other time,” she adds.

There is no charge for taking the course, which has been funded in part by the Almond Board of California and Project Apis m. It’s available at http://ucanr.edu/ColonyStrength.

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