COMB: Conventional and Organic Management of Bees

Project COMB (Conventional and Organic Management of Bees) aims to determine the impacts of various management systems on honey bee colony health. Specifically, our goal is to do a side-by-side comparison of conventional, organic, and chemical free management systems to determine how beekeeping practices impact colony health and productivity, disease and pest tolerance, and how all of these factors impact beekeeping economics. In November 2017, we met with 27 stakeholders, ranging from hobbyists to commercial beekeepers, to develop the protocols for each management system (read more) based on their current practices. In April 2018, we began the experiment with the establishment of 288 colonies; 216 in Pennsylvania and 72 in West Virginia (see locations on map). Colonies will be managed and followed for at least two years. To measure colony health, we regularly sample colonies for various diseases and pests, including varroa mites, nosema, and various viruses. We will also measure and monitor colony status using metrics such as comb building, honey production, swarming behavior, bee immunity, and pesticide exposure. In addition, we are conducting an economic analysis to quantitatively compare the costs and benefits of the different management systems. Our long-term goals are (1) to provide beekeepers with scientific information that helps them make informed decisions about their beekeeping practices, and (2) create standardized protocols for organic beekeeping management, which can support the development of a new market for organic honey bee products in the United States. Please stay tuned for updates and more information about the project.

Conventional: A system that allows the use of chemicals (synthetic and natural) and antibiotics to control parasites and pathogens in colonies.

Organic: A system that only allows mechanical and non-synthetic chemical treatments to control parasites and pathogens in honey bee colonies. [

Chemical-Free: A system that relies primarily on the genetics of the colony to control parasites and pathogens in honey bee colonies.

COMB: Overwintering and plans for year 2

Overwintering survival for the first winter (2018-19) varied in the three management systems with about 84% of conventional, 81% of organic, and 36% of chemical free colonies making it through the winter (Figure 1). Colonies were checked monthly over the winter, to determine when the losses occurred.


Figure 1. Overwintering survival (2018-2019) of colonies kept under a conventional (CON), organic (ORG), or chemical free (CF) management system.

During the spring of 2019, brood area was estimated as a measure of the strength of the colonies and to determine which colonies are candidates for splitting. Already on April 8 we saw capped queen cells in strong colonies getting ready to swarm!  When we saw this (April through July), we created a split, placing resources, queen cells, brood and several frames of worker bees in a new hive at a new location, leaving the queen and the remaining brood behind. 

We are managing the bees for the COMB project for honey production. Therefore, aside from replacing our numbers with splits, we maintain strong colonies in hopes of a large honey harvest.  In 2019, second-year colonies made, on average, 30 lb. in the CF group, 22 lb. in the CON group, and 27 lb. in the ORG group, totalling 630, 1506, and 1701 lb., respectively. We also monitored honey production in the splits, but do not report that here.

Management Systems

Please note that these systems should not be considered best management practices. Instead, they are common management practices among beekeepers ranging from hobbyists to commercial practices.

Summary of each of the three management systems for year-1 and year-2

Questions about this project?

Please contact Robyn Underwood