Clovis Toullet is the beekeeper in charge of the ECOBEE monitoring platform which is an observatory of honeybee’s colonies in an open landscape. He explains here what are his job and the monitoring of honeybees in the Zone atelier Plaine & Val de Sèvre (ZA-PVS) in France

The APIS unit from INRA involves the ECOBEE platform in the Poll-Ole-Gi project. Each year, a selection of 10 sites randomly distributed among 50 is tested in the ZA-PVS. This observatory is carried out every year on 50 honeybee colonies disseminated in this area. The goal is to study the development and the health of colonies depending on environmental characteristics (landscapes, agricultural practices or present plant species).

What is your role in Poll-Ole-Gi?

I am one of the beekeepers of the APIS unit at Inra le Magneraud. I have been in charge of Ecobee since 2008 and I take care of a livestock of one hundred of colonies. I provide data by doing series of observations and beekeeping management.

Indeed, I am not alone to be engaged in this observatory. In the unit, data-gathering is a collective task and each coworker has a role: recording, metrology, sampling, pollen analyses (collected with traps) and measures on hives in which I am directly involved

When do you start the beekeeping season?

In January, I start prospecting for some grounds as soon as the 10 sites are randomly chosen by the managers of the observatory. Since 2008, I built up a network and, when it is possible, I contact the landowners directly. When I don’t know anyone in the area, I do some searches via the land register at town hall.

Meanwhile during this period, I get ready to set up apiaries and select the strongest colonies. I rank them according to their strength to create the different apiaries, trying as often as I can to repeat observations in the previous year’s colonies. The ECOBEE experiment starts in February when we begin to have convenient weather for spring visits.

What is important about the location of the apiaries?

In the monitoring protocol, apiaries are permanent and must be placed in the center of the tested site. In order to get a healthy development of colonies, I make sure to find a compromise between bee’s wellbeing and the ease for measuring process (wind protection, temperature…). Wind protection is essential for the flight of foragers but also for the collection of data (brood frames are hanged during weighing).

What are the data collected on colonies?

We weigh each frame with and without bees, we measure brood ellipse and its covered status, we count varroas on the adults and finally we collect data from thermos-hygro sensors. Each visit I evaluate the strength of colonies, I check and I tag the queens, I have a look on laying and sanitary conditions. Each intervention at the hives is first recorded in a follow-up notebook and then on a computer. In my job, skills of observation and adaptation are essential constituents. We depend on weather conditions for measurements, hence we must adapt as we can to the rhythm of the colonies.

The colonies must maintain an adequate survival rate and health status to ensure experiments. It is easier to compare healthy colonies so we try to have homogenous livestock to avoid a too high variation linked to status of colonies.

How do you handle the renewal of colonies?

We obtain measurements on 30 bee colonies among the 50 present in the ZA-PVS. We must stop all measurements when colonies lose their queen. In this case, we engage the control hives which are close to the others, but this process can cause a large turn-over. Renewals are ensured by divisions of colonies and, since 2014, we have been carrying out queen rearing from our own livestock. The ECOBEE queen colonies come either from natural requeening or from the breeder hive queen cells.

Do you have honey production?

As an experimenter, I harvest honey only if it doesn’t affect primary objectives of the monitoring such as survival and health conditions. That’s why I don’t boost colonies with syrup. On the other hand, I produce honey at home with my own colonies.

During the beekeeping season, the bees eat nectar and pollen from the plants they find in their surroundings and I prefer they consume their own honey. This technique is also a good way to renew the frames from hive when they are old. In the cold season, I can give them syrup or candy but if they don’t need it, I don’t feed them. I also adjust the volume of the hive to the strength of the colony with some insulating partitions.

What is a typical honey production in your territory?

In this area, there are two specific honey flows: one coming from rapeseed and the other from sunflower. In our region, sunflower is a key honey flow for beekeeping. Rapeseed plants don’t produce honey flows in all years – weather conditions may be correct but abundance of nectar in this plant is another story. Moreove, the rapeseed blooming is early during the season and in this period honeybees are still growing.