Databases and Beekeeping

Bee Culture (March 2004), Vol. 132 (3): 17-19




Malcolm T. Sanford


What is a database?  It is nothing more than a collection of information or “data” that can be found at a certain place.  The first database in any organism is probably a nerve cell or neuron; a collection of them is a ganglion, and a very large ganglion is a brain.  It is the place organisms use when they need some information collected and interpreted by specialized organs such as eyes or noses.  Although little has historically been known about how the human brain gathers and stores information, the advent of the digital computer revolution is rapidly changing that.  Witness projects like the University of California/San Diego Human Brain project.1  The brain is also the first place beekeepers go to get information about management.  The amount of information stored in beekeepers’ brains is tremendous, but not everything belongs nor can be processed there.


With the advent of paper, there appeared a more permanent place to collect and store data besides the brain, which is notoriously unreliable (it shuts down on death).  An article in the February 2004 Bee Culture by Barbara Blaufuss discusses this use: “In the beginning I started a notebook. On one page for each hive I wrote details about the locations and the queens. It was a satisfying ritual to record in it occasionally. But I never read it. What I really needed was a way to record what was happening with my hives simply and graphically so I could see at a glance not just one hive but all the hives and locations. I wanted to paint a picture on paper of what was happening in the field.”  Her ledger born.


Ms. Blaufuss concludes: “A really obvious reason for keeping some records is responsible handling of chemicals. I may not always remember when I put the strips in or how many times I have sprinkled terramycin or how much Fumidil I have given a hive. Since the timing varies with each of these treatments, it can be challenging for me to remember the details with even one hive.”  The same reasoning prompted Mr. Glenn Engel to think about collecting colony information : “The original idea for this came from my inability to remember exactly when to remove my mite treatments.” 


Rather than paper, Mr. Engel moved to a newer technology to manage his database, the digital computer.  After doing some searching, he saw no beekeeping applications available on the World Wide Web to do this task, and so he took on the daunting challenge to put something online, available to all beekeepers.  This became his web site with the domain name:  Fortunately, Mr. Engel has a background in programming sites like these.  He is currently building a 72-foot tower with it's own web page that controls the height of the tower, as well as the direction of the antenna at the top of the tower.


About his beekeeping database project, Mr Engel says, “I bought the domain name this last summer and the idea incubated until November when I started writing some database and web scripts to get the site up and running.  On Dec 2,2003 I made the site active and after one or two emails to beekeeping lists the users (and hives) started showing up.  So far I haven't really tried to advertise as the site underwent significant changes in December but I think it's now ready for general use.  I think this morning I told you there were 65 users and 156 hives.  Tonight there are 71 users and 165 hives so use is growing.


“My main goal for the site is for it to be useful to beekeepers for their records so over time I'll be enhancing it with various reports and analysis pages including the ability to send an email reminder to remove miticide 6 weeks after it goes in.  When users register I ask for their postal code with the future objective of being able to generate reports showing interesting things like average yield per hive per state.  I've leveraged many ideas from a paper written by the WA State apiarist.  (Note: WA no longer has an official state apiarist due to budget cutbacks, but Jim Bach is still working for the dept of agriculture in WA). 


“I've also tried to capture data in a way that allows for subsequent analysis by someone (perhaps a graduate student) if the amount of data in the database becomes statistically significant.  For example, the checkboxes allow users to make notes about their hives in a way that allows analysis tools to look for correlation.  Another example of interesting questions are what is the distribution of queen races by geography, do hives that have an entry for 'supercedure cells' subsequently swarm,  which queen breeders have queens that don't tend to swarm, what is an average honey crop etc.  In any case, users’ true identity will never be revealed or released but the 'raw' data could prove interesting.  Finally, I do not have any plans to start charging users or add annoying pop-up ads but want to keep it a free and useful resource for beekeepers.”


Visiting the site, one immediately sees the possibilities.  Each colony can be seen at a glance.  Information includes hive color, condition of queen and brood, diseases and treatments used, and other notes.  Colonies can also be summarized.  The site also includes reference materials and a forum to ask questions and share information with others.  Finally, there is no current limit on number of colonies or users.  A most exciting possibility is that many beekeepers across the nation could use the database to collect data on a uniform basis for large-scale studies.  Investigators would have at their disposal a huge amount of information to look at and share with colleagues. 


Although perhaps the most innovative database in terms of sharing information, most web pages are in fact databases.  Two others that come to mind are and the French mega site, both of which I reviewed in previous articles in this magazine.3


There are databases available in other areas that concern beekeepers.  Perhaps most important are those of the plants honey bees forage on.  Enter Dr. Zachary Wang at Michigan State University in cooperation with his colleague Dr. George Ayers, who is a recognized authority on bee plants.  Their database is just beginning its development, but still shows some great possibilities such as searching for plants based on common name, Latin name, country of origin or even bloom time.4  The main page, for example, has a link to two of my favorite plants.  The first we call here in Florida, swamp maple.  I look for it each year about this time.  It is a signal that Spring has sprung and beekeeping season is underway.   The second is tulip poplar, the source of a dark reddish honey in the southeast, but a plant that is distributed throughout the United States.  There is a lot of information on both plants on the site, and striking pictures can be printed in various formats. Finally, there are comments from beekeepers about the plant, most notably those of South Carolina’s David Green, who has his own database web site devoted to pollination.5


Other plant databases exist that are phenomenal, but not necessarily dedicated to beekeeping.  For sheer quantity of information, the National Plants database maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can’t be beat.6   There are a raft of others listed at the site.7


1., accessed January 22, 2004.

2., accessed January 22, 2004.

3., accessed January 23, 2004.

4., accessed January 23, 2004.

5., accessed January 22, 2004.

6., accessed January 23, 2004

7., accessed January 23, 2004.