The Internet of Bees

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would only have four years left to live” Albert Einstein

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the term used to describe widespread hive collapse. CCD does not have a single cause – rather, it is a variety of human behaviours such as pesticide use (neonicotinoids) and habitat collapse coupled with diseases and parasites such as American Foul Brood and the Varroa mite which are spelling disaster for honeybee populations.

Over the past 25 years, beekeepers have noted a sharp decline in bee numbers and colony distribution, with the situation steadily worsening. The majority of countries in North America and the EU are losing up to a third of their colonies each year, creating a pollination crisis. In fact, in 2015/2016, US colonies were halved by widespread bee death. As a result of this collapse, losses in agriculture are estimated to reach $200 billion USD each year. Bees are responsible for pollinating 30% of human crops. With an estimated 9.5 billion people to feed by year 2050, bees will be needed more than ever.

The lack of bees has led to declines in wild plant diversity, widespread ecosystem instabilities, drops in crop production, and a crisis of food security and human welfare.

In a bid to better understand bee behaviour and colony health, data scientists have teamed up with beekeepers and biologists to devise monitoring systems tiny enough to fit inside of a hive, and light enough to sit on the back of a bee without impeding its mobility.

Beehives need a set of particular environmental conditions to flourish. Many colonies in warmer climates can die from overheating. 34.5 degrees Celsius is a bee’s sweet spot. Even 1.5 degrees Celsius above this, and larvae will develop with deformities and will most likely die before fulfilling its hive duties. Another consideration is structural integrity. Excessive heat and wax are not a good combination.

By monitoring temperature, humidity, CO2, light, acceleration and other data points, beekeepers can avoid inspecting every single hive, and instead visit only those hives which need shade or ventilation. It’s a win-win for all involved. Bees enjoy optimal conditions. Beekeepers work a little less hard. And Data scientists and conservationists access aggregate data which helps them understand bee behaviour.

Smart Monitoring Devices from SmartBee

Thanks to in-hive sensors, beekeepers can monitor hive health remotely. Knowing which hive to check on in the morning is a huge convenience for beekeepers who need to load equipment into vehicles and drive kilometers between hives.

Start-ups focusing on sensors and internet-equipped devices are faced with the challenge of beekeepers accepting the new tech. Many people have heard rumours about mobile phones killing bees. According to Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy of ApisProtect, this is not true and has been studied in extensive blind studies. Surprisingly, the blind study also found that there was no change in bee behaviour due to hardware within the hive.

A sensor from Nectar:

Another challenge is finding low-cost, easily replaceable hardware that works reliably and can send signals over large distances. Beehives are in remote, rural locations – in fields, game reserves, orchards. Extracting sensor data from these locations is a difficult thing to do. Not every field is WiFi equipped. The solution? Working in collaboration with satellites so that LoRawan devices can have internet connection anywhere.

Despite these logistics challenges, IoT projects to save the bees are sprouting up all over the world.

The following examples are from iotforall:

Sounds of the Hives

An artist in Brussels, Anne Marie Maes, is sampling sounds through hive embedded piezo-electric microphones. The aim of her work is to recognize the health of the hive by identifying patterns in the audio datasets gleaned from hives.

Big Brother of the Bees

The EyesOnHives system uses cameras to track individual bee movements optically. Using an approach similar to image recognition (or computer vision) systems, it develops day-to-day signatures of bee activities from which changes in hive conditions can be detected early while it’s still possible to remedy the problem. 

RFID Backpacks for Bees

Dr. Paulo de Souza a CSIRO entomologist in Tasmania, is gluing tiny RFID devices to bees in a quest to track generational impacts of pesticide exposure and genetically modified pollen.

To read more about bees with RFID backpacks, click here

What does the future hold?

IoT can provide much-needed insight into Colony Collapse Disorder and arm scientists with the data needed to spot patterns, predict colony issues, and prevent bee deaths. Monitoring tools coupled with machine learning can take raw environmental sensor data such as current temperature, humidity, wind, sound, light, and motion levels and create a smart alert system for beekers. Smart hives and DIY smart ‘homes’ for bees will become commonplace as the technology becomes even cheaper and more people pick up on the ‘save the bees’ trend. Edge computing capabilities will automate many of the environmental regulatory mechanisms of the hive, such as opening up vents to circulate air, or rotating a hive out of direct sunlight. While IoT will not single-handedly save the bees, it will provide much needed data to help move along new legal environmental regulations and will help beekeepers understand their colonies’ needs.

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