The 37th edition of the Western Apicultural Society of North America (WAS) met at the University of Montana, September 18-20, 2014. With the current President, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, at the helm I attended knowing that this would, as the organizers promised, “not be your grandfather’s bee conference.” It did not disappoint. “The Future…brought to you by WAS (and some other good people.)” followed on the heels of Dr. Bromenshenk’s 2nd International Workshop on Hive and Bee Monitoring:
For those not informed about Dr. Bromenshenk, now formally retired as a faculty member at the University of Montana, his employment history is worth examining. He is arguably the only faculty member in the bee research arena at a major university to have supported himself on what is called euphemistically, “soft money.” In short, he has had to earn his living by writing grants, rather than the more usual way faculty members are paid, via a taxpayer-supported salary. In order to do this he has explored some unconventional funding sources, including the Department of Energy, the Defense Department via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) , the US Army USA-CEHR, and the US Army NVESD laboratories. Research funded by these agencies resulted in patented technologies and methods including Smart Hives (electronic hives), laser (lidar) mapingof honey bee distributions, acoustic diagnostics for colony health and chemical detection, and training of honey bees to find land mines. Many of these were on display at the workshop.
Dr. Bromenshenk’s resume also includes pioneering study using honey bees as environmental sentinels (monitors) via citizen-based science projects and establishing honey bee based protocols of ecological assessments for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The workshop on hive monitoring brought together a group of highly-trained folks interested in finding the keys to looking at honey bee behavior and colony management without physically manipulating the colony. Physical inspection often inserts error into the observations. It featured the activities of a number of different entities, many using a traditional technology, the scale hive, in innovative ways.
Leading off was Jerry Hayes, ex-bee inspector in Florida and now Monsanto Corporation’s Honey Bee Health Lead at the corporation’s newly-formed BioDirect Business Unit. He discussed how scale hives are used in the company’s research on honey bee health in a number of areas. This was followed by Alwyn Smith of Paladin Engineering, also describing using scale hives (so-called “smart hives”) in relation to research by Bayer Corporation’s newly-formed Bee Care Center in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
Mr. Smith would be the first of several at the workshop to mention the obvious to attendees: “honey bees are not cows!” It’s relatively easy to do research on cattle, which can be corralled and closely observed throughout their life. Not so for honey bees that forage up to a mile radius from their colony with the majority of their activities hidden from view inside a wooden box.
The list of things that have to be looked at, according to Mr. Smith, include not only what he called “low hanging fruit” (weight, temperature, humidity), but also specialized activity, much more difficult to analyze. These include specific noises (acoustics), thermal outputs of both adults and brood, individual bee trips in and out of the colony (bee counting), and subtle effects of pheromones. Creative measurements of these can answer many of the perennial questions asked by beekeepers over the years according to Mr. Smith: Is the queen alive or dead? Where is the queen? When is the nectar flow? Where do workers go? What do they do? How healthy is a colony in general? Based on what parameters?
A star of the show at the workshop had to be the current monitoring efforts of an outfit calling itself “Arnia.” Arnia is the Italian word for beehive. This company was formed by Dr. Huw Evans and his wife with specific objectives as noted on the web site: The Arnia system sports a delightful user interface and marks the first commercially available, complete system to be marketed at relatively low cost to small scale and backyard beekeepers. It is a complete system with a basic set of sensors (e.g., hive weight, temperature, relative humidity, bee sound) and cellular communications. It seeks to help answer numerous questions beekeepers might have. How many beekeepers, for example, would like to receive a text message notifying them that their supers are full, or a colony has gone queenless, needs winter feed, was knocked down or blown over, perhaps stolen?
Arnia’s monitoring efforts began by looking at acoustics for swarm control, but now include scale hives , as well as information on brood nest temperature, and humidity. Arnia distinguishes itself over simpler hive-scale systems by collecting a huge amount of data remotely, in real time on a routine basis. This information reveals the “wisdom of the crowd,” which appears to mirror how humans, honey bees, and many other biological phenomena self-govern. The activity also fits with the idea of collecting what is being called “big data” .
Arnia appeared to be the “gold standard” at the moment, as featured at the Missoula workshop, having the most advanced, commercially-available, single-hive system on display. However, others are currently in the pipeline and rapidly capacity is rapidly building. Initiatives not prominently featured at the event Include those by commercial beekeeping supply outlets like Swienty and Mann Lake Supply. The latter is targeting large-scale applications for beekeepers in the U.S.
An example of the use of the Arnia system was provided by Robert McCreery of the Dromore Beekeepers Association in Northern Ireland. This activity (Journeyman Hive Monitoring) is considered a cornerstone of “Strategy for the Sustainabiity of the Honey Bee,” a program of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which was initiated in 2011.
Other activities mentioned by Mr. McCreery include a distributed pollinator study, categorizing pollen diversity and analyzing flowering times (phenology). Of utmost importance is its use in schools and educational institutions, as well as in the field of what is being called “citizen science,” where beekeepers themselves become an integral part of a research team.
Citizen science was pioneered by Dr. Bromenshenk in his early studies using bees as environmental monitors of air quality in the Pacific northwest. Dr. Wayne Esias, recently retired from NASA’s Goddard Space Center discussed the origins of his citizen science project, which began in 2006, when he farmed out some hive scales to beekeepers around the U.S. Now called Honey Bee Net, this is reaching a network of beekeepers, that continues to actively gather data. The genesis of this initiative is spelled out in a Nasa blog post :
“Esaias, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, has been studying this cycle of beehive yo yo dieting in the U.S.. By combining hive weight changes with space satellite data that reveal vegetation change on the ground, along with other data that go back to the 1920s, he has found that the timing of spring nectar flows has undergone extraordinary change. ‘Each year, the nectar flow comes about a half-day earlier on average,’ says Esaias. ‘In total, since the 1970s, it has moved forward by about month in Maryland.’ In an interesting demonstration of citizen science, Esaias has set up a network of amateur beekeepers —HoneyBeeNet— who use industrial-sized scales to weigh their hives each day.”
Since its beginnings, Dr. Esaias reported at the workshop, the HoneyBeeNet project has made great progress in analyzing what’s going on outside the hive. Important areas of interest include indirect climate impacts on plants providing nectar. He emphasized that “honey bee nectar flow” is what is being looked at, and not necessarily correlated with what many beekeepers call the “honey flow.”
Warming of the climate continues to be the focus of Dr. Esaias’ efforts, which have delivered some intriguing conclusions. The role of “invasive” species is now being looked at from different perspectives. Could these plants be a godsend if native species can’t survive in the region they are originally adapted to? A comparison of trees as major nectar plants in the northeast vs plants in other areas brings into focus regional differences in bee forage that must be taken into consideration when making honey bee management decisions. Unfortunately, with the retirement of Dr. Esaias, the future of Honey BeeNet is in doubt. It appears that at least some of this effort will be taken up by the Bee Informed Partnership’s sentinel hive project.
Another hive monitoring approach mentioned at the workshop that is currently in use is Hive Tracks. According to its web site, “Hive Tracks is a powerful computer application accessed through any Internet Browser. It can be used from a laptop, desktop, iPad, iPhone or other type of smart phone with Internet access.” The approach is similar to that of Honey Bee Net in that bee and hive data is periodically collected in the bee yard and can be transferred via the Internet. Both Hive Tracks and Honey Bee Net differ from Arnia in a crucial way; neither is real time, remote monitoring, relying instead on a beekeeper physically visiting the bee yard and collecting data from individual colonies.
The relative costs of the approaches discussed above are quite different from that of Arnia. Adding remote information gathering substantially increases costs due to the necessary network connections, hardware and service contracts needed. Like many technological advances in the digital age, however, the price of collecting big data from many hives is expected to decrease over time and the cost-benefit ratio quickly becomes evident when collecting data from far distant locations.
Dr. William G Meikle of the USDA’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center discussed his projects in hive monitoring. Again they relate to questions beekeepers routinely have including how fast do bees consume food?; what is the best way to measure adult populations?; and how long does it take a colony to recover from beekeeper manipulations? Two conclusions from the work reported by Drs. Esaias and Meikle above and confirmed in other studies stand out in this reporter’s mind: 1) it is apparent that it takes about a full day for a colony to recover from a “normal” beekeeping inspection (hive manipulation), and 2) Africanized honey bees (AHB) may not have moved from their initial border crossing in Texas eastward because they appear to require at least two nectar flows during the course of the year. In the East, only one major annual nectar flow is characteristic.
The conclusions above reveal how data monitoring might influence research and beekeeping practice . Most beekeepers and others generally conclude that manipulating a colony as part of a general inspection is a benign activity . Knowing that it can disorganize a hive for an extended period of time, reducing productivity, might be an important timing consideration. As the Africanized honey bee (AHB) invaded the U.S., most study focused on the ability of this bee to survive winter conditions. The fact that AHB spread would be influenced by the number or quality of nectar flows was not considered as important as thermoregulation, but this may no longer be the case in future investigations.
Robert Seccomb of Bee Alert Technology presented information on how acoustical scanning (sound monitoring) using Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) for data processing can provide insights into honey bee behavior. According to wikipedia.com, “Examinations of the human’s central nervous system inspired the concept of neural networks. In an ANN, simple artificial nodes, known as ‘neurons’, ‘neurodes’, ‘processing elements’ or ‘units’, are connected together to form a network which mimics a biological neural network.
“Neural networks are similar to biological neural networks in performing functions collectively and in parallel by the units, rather than there being a clear delineation of subtasks to which various units are assigned. The term ‘neural network’ usually refers to models employed in statistics, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Neural network models which emulate the central nervous system are part of theoretical neuroscience and computational neuroscience.”
Many years ago, acoustical scanning was used by Howard Kerr at Oak Ridge National Laboratories for distinguishing Africanized honey bees from their European cousins. It was first used by Eddy Woods in the United Kingdom (U.K.) for predicting swarming based on a unique sound frequency. This technique, combined with ANNs, was used by Mr. Seccomb to determine the presence of chemical warfare agents for the U.S. Army, and then expanded under a USDA award to detect bee pests such as Varroa mites and diseases, including foul brood, nosemosis, and CCD. Now under a new USDA SBIR project it is being employed to determine when pesticide exposures occur and how they might affect colonies. Mr. Seccomb concluded the technique is not necessarily 100 percent accurate at this point, but it’s a lot quicker than visual inspection or statistical analysis.
Colin Henderson, University of Montana, provided information on using LIDAR to locate bees in the field. As opposed to RADAR, which uses radio waves, LIDAR uses light from lasers. As noted on wikipedia.org: “Lidar originated in the early 1960s, shortly after the invention of the laser, and combined laser-focused imaging with radar’s ability to calculate distances by measuring the time for a signal to return. Its first applications came in meteorology, where the National Center for Atmospheric Research used it to measure clouds. The general public became aware of the accuracy and usefulness of lidar systems in 1971 during the Apollo 15 mission, when astronauts used a laser altimeter to map the surface of the moon.” Honey bees are notoriously difficult to keep track of in the field. Various tags and transmitters have been used, again pioneered by Howard Kerr some years ago. However, these all require catching and attaching something to the bees, plus expensive, sophisticated equipment. However, LIDAR recognizes bee size, movement, and wing beat frequency without the need to handle any specific insect.
LIDAR is now being used to study bee movements in various habitats and for optimizing pollination strategies. It can place the location of any detected bee with extremely good resolution (down to a few centimeters). The biggest recent development in the LIDAR technology is a great reduction in size of the equipment being used, which was on display at the workshop.
Using LIDAR is a logical offshoot from the pioneering work using RADAR to look at drone congretation areas in Arizona. Dr. Gerry Loper, retired from the USDA Tucson Bee Lab, showed his ground-breaking video, produced in the late 1980s. He is exploring uses of LIDAR and Infra Red (IR) imaging for further work on honey bee mating.
Dr. Bromenshenk anchored the Bee Alert Technology presentations with his discussion of using RFID chips for security and infra red imaging of colonies to assess population size and condition. According to wikipedia.org: “Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) uses ‘tags,’ or ‘labels’ attached to objects to be identified. Two-way radio transmitter-receivers called ‘interrogators’ or ‘readers’ send a signal to the tag and read its response.
“Tags may either be read-only, having a factory-assigned serial number that is used as a key into a database, or may be read/write, where object-specific data can be written into the tag by the system user. Field programmable tags may be write-once, read-multiple; ‘blank’ tags may be written with an electronic product code by the user.”
Bee Alert Technology and the University of Montana, working with Batelle Pacific National Laboratories, put the first RFID tracking tag on a honey bee more than a decade ago. The Battelle team went on to develop many of the RFID tags currently used for identifying and tracking a wide array of items, and Bee Alert, in 2006, began offering RFID chips to mark beehives for theft protection and recovery. RFID use in honey bee management is very different from the more traditional applications in inventory control. Bee Alert and the Battelle team are now offering this service, which focuses on helping manage large numbers of bee colonies.
Dr. Bromenshenk’s current research indicates that RFID technology is better utilized to improve hive efficiency and productivity, rather than simply to prevent theft. Here’s a more detailed list of the former. He recommended buying RFID for the following reasons:
To discover whether colonies are missing
To discover whether you forgot to feed
To track performance by bee yard, by hive-scales, and by queen source
And he counseled those present to only buy RFIDs from:
Someone who knows RFIDs
Someone who has experience with the underlying software
Someone who can customize it to FIT YOUR NEEDS!
Infrared (IR) technology (heat detection) has also come a long way in recent years according to Dr. Bromenshenk. Uses have proliferated in beekeeping, including looking at wintering in sheds, checking queen cells for viability, and determining the condition of outdoor colonies in all kinds of weather.
The biggest changes have occurred in pricing of cameras, which now come in a variety of styles. The biggest problem is matching the best camera to specific tasks. During his presentation, Dr. Bromenshenk received an e-mail giving Bee Alert Technology the go ahead to conduct a full-scale calibration of IR cameras for grading colonies to be used in commercial pollination. The work is scheduled to occur in California, working with beekeepers and growers just prior to placement of colonies for almond pollination in January and February.
A panel discussion ended the workshop. It concentrated on business planning and where funds might come from to start and continue both research and practical projects. The power of developing partnerships was emphasized by all the panelists, especially those at the University of Montana in the business college. The example of Bee Alert Technology came up again and again in the discussion. In the future, it may become a model of sorts as more and more academicians and others look toward outside funding for honey bee projects dedicated to transfering technologies from the research laboratory to the market place.
During the workshop in the vending area and at the concluding Saturday morning short courses many of the aforementioned technologies were demonstrated. Bee Alert Technology brought out its LIDAR apparatus and unveiled a pallet-based counterpart to the Arnia system, which will be beta-tested in commercial beekeeping operations this coming winter. The pallet-based system monitors multiple hives and uses either cellular or satellite communications, which are available world-wide, at a cost similar to or sometimes lower than cell phone use.
There appears to be a potentially large, world-wide market for the technologies featured at the workshop. A big issue will be whether competing interests will form alliances and partnerships, complimenting each others efforts, or attempt to go it alone. it’s also still early enough to begin to establish standards, so that data can be exchanged, and investment in one system does not preclude expansion or addition of others.
As prices come down and numbers of monitored hives increase, Dr. Bromenshenk concluded it would be far better to be able to upgrade a system in the future without having to scrap the original platform. This would take a page out of beekeeping’s current use of Langstroth (standard) hives, which allows users to mix and match equipment. As a start in this direction a list-sever is projected to be established to share ideas and perhaps begin formation of an Association for Hive and Bee Monitoring.
Robert Seccomb and Dr. Bromenshenk both commented that it was great to see the increase in the number of systems and companies producing them that has occurred in the two years since the first Monitoring workshop. It was even more exciting to see that some actually had data to show! They’ve been waiting since 1995 to compare and discuss the possibilities.