Honeybees, Opportunities, and Hive Monitoring Systems

By Anne Marie Fauvel, fauvela@gvsu.edu
Affiliate Professor at Grand Valley State University, Michigan

I became interested in honeybees a few years back. In fact, people around me say I have become obsessed with them. It began as a hobby but these fascinating insects quickly took over my life, as I am sure many of you can relate. You know how some people bring their work home? Well, I brought my passion to work; we academics have that luxury.

I am a biologist. Scratch that, I am a generalist with a background in biology. All right, I am a Liberal Studies professor, who tries to makes sense of the natural world around us. Heck, I am an opportunist.

I was part of a Green Team at a small satellite campus of GVSU in Holland, Michigan. Our Green Team had been working on multiple small projects to green up the campus, save energy, and lower our carbon footprint.

Opportunity #1: Establish the first, small apiary on campus as a sustainability project that also emphasized community education.

While the project proposal bounced back and forth between various administrative offices, I planned events to educate and involve students. Knowing that a research component would strengthen our proposal, I also looked for ways we could get involved in research.

Research is often specific and narrow, not the loot of a Liberal Studies generalist. However, luckily, I married a wonderfully focused scientist who often brings me back to Earth with practical ideas. He suggested a scale to monitor the real-time weight of a hive. I wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the idea—it didn’t promise to be the honeybee-saving breakthrough I had imagined. But, I went with it and learned that simple ideas can often reach far.

Opportunity #2: Work on a Hive Monitoring System (HMS) as a form of interdisciplinary research.

Another great perk to the academic world is that at your fingertips is a comprehensive network of experts. You see, it was a feat for me to assemble my first bee boxes—I am not gifted with carpentry or engineering skills. So, when my husband suggested I build a hive scale, he didn’t literally mean that ‘I’ was to take on the challenge.

During the winter 2012 semester, before our bees arrived, I enlisted the help of a team of senior engineering students to develop and build a digital, solar-powered scale, and a second team of senior computer and information systems students to develop the software to automatically collect and disseminate the data to a website built around the project.

And so our scale was built and the website launched; here comes the scientific jargon. The scale is built from a simple T-slot extruded aluminum frame fastened with compatible joining brackets. Its brain is an Arduino Micro-controller loaded with custom software and linked to six analog input sensors. The brain speaks via a cellular shield, stacked on top of the Arduino, which provides the SMS (text messaging) send/receive functionality using a SIM card and cellular service plan. All of these electronics are sealed in a watertight junction box and powered by a 12-volt battery attached to a 15-watt solar panel.

In operation, four of the six sensors measure the hive’s weight, two of the sensors measure the temperature inside and outside the hive, and the Arduino-driven SIM card sends the information to the cloud via a Google voice account. This information is displayed on a student-designed website (http://beecloudproject.appspot.com). The scale SIM card can also receive messages. This means I can text a command to the scale from anywhere asking for data to be collected every 5 minutes instead of every 30 minutes, for example.

We installed our bees in two new hives on the Holland campus in the spring of 2012; one of the hives was perched on the snazzy HMS. And the data flowed like nectar.

Until one day when the data just stopped coming in.

I asked the engineers to come out and suit up to troubleshoot. Finding all well mechanically and electronically with the HMS, we turned to computer science students; it must be their fault. But no, their side of the system was working fine too. Where was the problem? Sometimes with complex systems it is easy for overlook the basic. Turns out I had forgotten to pay the data plan that month. It is on a monthly automatic payment plan now.

So what can one do with beehive weight data, you may wonder? What’s the point? A Google search (yes we academics are that sophisticated) turned up the NASA HoneyBeeNet project, which became my ultimate goal.

HoneyBeeNet (http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/) was a NASA-funded project that collected data over the past 60-some years. I say was, because the project is in the process of transitioning from NASA to the Bee Informed Partnership (http://beeinformed.org), a national data collection and analysis effort based on public surveys. The goal of Bee Informed is to better evaluate, understand and reduce bee colony losses.

NASA’s HoneyBeeNet superposed the honey bee’s weight information with satellite images of the surrounding vegetation to analyze and draw conclusions about the honey flow or the pollination season timetable in the context of climate change. Dr. Wayne Esaias from NASA and the University of Maryland coordinates the efforts of the HoneyBeeNet. You can find more information about his research in the February 2013 issue of Bee Culture magazine.

The last data in the HoneyBeeNet database from the State of Michigan dated back to 1954; no Michigan locations have contributed since. If GVSU could get in on the HoneyBeeNet we would be the only point of reference for the State of Michigan.

Opportunity #3: Contribute to a national data collection effort impacting both honey bee populations and climate change research.

Now, this generalist is excited!

Last spring, like many new beekeepers, I battled with the consequences of unusually warm weather, swarms, failing queens, supersedures, unsuccessful splits, desperate colony combinations, and all the emotional trauma associated with starting an apiary. By the time things settled in the apiary and data was coming in, the honey flow had pretty much come and gone. I took stock of my losses and hoped for a better next year. Knowing I certainly still had much to learn about bees, I headed out to Apimondia 2012.

Among the speakers that weekend was the highly dynamic Dennis vanEngelsdorp from the University of Maryland, also the director of the Bee Informed Partnership. I decided to go shake his hand after his talk and mention my attempt to contribute data to HoneyBeeNet. During our conversation, I asked if they had any plans to make the data collection a bit more automated, as emailing spreadsheets was still the standard method. Dennis mentioned they were exploring a SMS messaging data collection. I found myself speaking before I could think: ‘We did that, would you like to see our website?’

Opportunity #4: Collaborate with HoneyBeeNet and the Bee Informed Partnership to develop a national network of electronic hive scales to enable colony survivorship and disease outbreak modeling based on real-time hive weight data.

Although I left Apimondia excited about starting to collaborate, my excitement edged toward panic: I really don’t know anything about computer programming, SMS messaging and web portals. Back at home I reached out to my colleague Jonathan Engelsma, a professor in the GVSU School of Computing and Information Systems, who had led the students to build the software for our in-house project and, as it turns out, is a longtime beekeeper as passionate about bees as I am; and so, GVSU’s collaboration with ‘the big boys’ began.

A larger HMS project is developing. We—now including Dennis vanEngelsdorp and Karen Rennich from the University of Maryland and Bee Informed Partnership, Dr. Esaias from NASA and the University of Maryland, James Wilkes from Appalachian State University and Shane Gebauer from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, Jonathan and myself, have set some initial goals.

A short-term goal is to deploy a network of 100 HMS, with local bee clubs and beekeepers, large and small alike, to pilot a larger and more comprehensive effort. A second short-term goal is to enable participants and other interested beekeepers to view real-time online data from the networked HMS.

Longer-term goals are to extend the HMS network to beekeeping operations to provide real-time alerts to aid colony management and to highlight any emergent nectar-dependent factors, or, as in last year, drought conditions that affect short- and long-term colony health as well as other things like parasite loads. We have some preliminary data linking nectar flow with Nosema populations. Nectar flow is also linked with brood production which in turn is linked to Varroa population growth.

We are progressing on several fronts. We are honing the electronic scale design so it best fits our needs, based mostly on Dr. Esaias’ sage experience, and partly on our recent endeavors at GVSU. We are seeking a supplier to manufacture the scale and to provide “consumer service” for the systems when they are deployed. And we continue to develop the software side of the project at GVSU under the direction of Prof. Engelsma.

Finally, here comes an opportunity if you would like to be involved: we will soon be recruiting a pilot group of 100 participants. We are looking for bee clubs, commercial beekeepers, private or small hobbyists willing to buy a HMS and a cellular data plan to start contributing data to the Bee Informed Partnership national survey and become part of the ongoing research to better the health of our beloved honey bee population. We’ll have more information by the fall on what it will look like and what it will be able to do. The cost is not definite at the moment, but best estimates put the total expense between $400 and $600.

The 2013 season is well underway, and my colonies are off to a good start (knocking on wood). In the months to come, we will continue to develop the HMS and will begin to collect data nationwide. Like a good healthy honey bee visiting a variety of nectar sources, I will be looking for my next opportunity.

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