An early warning system for Beekeepers

By Geoff Williams1 & William Rowe2

1Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology, Auburn University, Auburn
2The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Fairhope

Early warning systems are ever so important to disaster risk reduction plans that strive to prevent loss of life and prevent economic impact. Alabama makes extensive use of NOAA’s Severe Weather and Hurricane Warning systems. Likewise, the state has an emergency management system that works to prevent, prepare and recover from unfortunate disasters that strike us.

Pivotal to the success of early warning systems are four key elements – 1. risk knowledge, 2. technical monitoring and warning, 3. communication and dissemination of warnings, and 4. community response capability (Wiltshire, 2006).

Early warning systems are typically associated with major physical disturbances – hurricanes and tornadoes for example. Nowadays, advances in technology and communication mean that beekeepers could also benefit from an early warning system.

One purpose of the Bee Informed Partnership’s Sentinel Apiary Program ( is to develop an early warning system for beekeepers to rapidly communicate information about varroa mite and nosema infestation levels, as well as honey production and nutritional needs.

For stressors of honey bees, risk knowledge and community response capability are sub-par (if they exist at all). But for varroa, we have a fighting chance, particularly as scientists and beekeepers continue to seek more sustainable solutions for its management.

For example:

  1. Risk knowledge – There is no question that varroa is bad news. We know it!

  2. Technical monitoring – Several tools exist to monitor for varroa, including sticky boards, sugar shakes, and alcohol washes ( In the case of BIP’s Sentinel Apiary Program, beekeepers simply collect bees from their colonies monthly between May and October, and mail them to the University of Maryland for analysis.

  3. Communication and dissemination of warnings – A quick email from the BIP lab to participating beekeepers, or an update of the Sentinel Apiary Program’s ‘Varroa’ ( or MiteCheck ( maps, can quickly alert beekeepers about regional varroa levels.

  4. Community response capability – Several tools (e.g. chemicals) are available for responding to high varroa levels. Remember to use them judiciously, diversify their use, and try to prevent high levels of infestation in the first place by using cultural techniques like drone brood removal or breaks in the brood cycle.

Each year, the Sentinel Apiary Program starts monitoring for varroa and nosema in May.

As Auburn University’s Bee Lab awaits those first results, we can at least reflect on trends in the weight of our colonies. Advances in hive scales and online platforms means that you can too!

It looks like nectar production has slowed in our region (Fig. 1). A quick look at the Bee Informed Partnership’s site ( suggests another participant a few hours north of us – in Birmingham – is observing a similar trend.


Fig. 1. Hive scale data from the Auburn University Bee Lab between 4-25 May 2018. In the top graph, the orange line illustrates hive weight; the green line illustrates ambient temperature. After May 16, hive weight leveled out.

Having these kinds of information spread to beekeepers around the state will allow us to be proactive rather than reactive! Please consider joining these early warning efforts – either as a participant or as an observer. The tool will grow in power as more become involved.


Wiltshire, Alison (2006). Developing Early Warning Systems: A Checklist. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Early Warning EWC III, Bonn, Germany. (Accessed 25 May 2018).

This blog supports the activities of a USDA NIFA Crop Protection and Pest Management grant


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