As prolific pollinators, honeybees are to thank for about one out of every three bites of food we eat. But as you’ve likely heard, bees are in trouble. They’re getting hit hard by pesticides, diseases, pests and habitat loss.
“I think that the bees are the tip of the iceberg that tell us so much about the pulse of this earth we live on,” says Grand Valley State University biologist Anne Marie Fauvel.
Fauvel and her colleague Jonathan Engelsma, who’s a computer scientist, are both beekeepers. And they’ve designed a project that uses technology to track the health of hives in a new way.
LISTEN: Struggling Honeybees Get Some Help from Big Data
Recently, I met up with Fauvel and Engelsma. The first thing they did: Zip me into a full-body bee suit. “It’s a little inconvenient. You feel like you’re going in a bio-hazard suit,” Fauvel says. But she assures me that the bees don’t usually sting.
“But once you go into their homes, rearrange their furniture, and you want to steal their honey—they have a bit more defensive behavior,” she says. “This time of year, particularly, when they have honey stores to defend, they sometimes will come at you at bit. But most of the time, they don’t.”
There are nine colonies at Grand Valley’s apiary in Holland, Michigan. And as we walk in to check on the hives, Engelsma describes what we’re smelling. “That kind of butterscotch-y, smelly feet, locker room smell is actually goldenrod nectar being brought in by the bees. It’s very distinct.”
All nine of the colonies here are part of a national project called the Bee Informed Partnership, which helps track honey bee health. Fauvel and Engelsma’s research is focusing on what can be learned about the health of a hive from its weight. Fauvel points to a metal scale on the bottom of a hive. “The hive is at 122.6 pounds this morning,” she says. “So there are bees out there foraging.” They can push a button on the scale, download the data to a phone app, and then all that data gets uploaded to the cloud.
“Basically, it’s a platform that lets us monitor the colony 24-7,” Engelsma says. “If it’s gaining weight during a period of the year when there’s pollen and nectar sources, we’d expect the weight to be going up—or at least changing regularly.”
He says you can also see times when a bunch of bees leave the hive. That can signal that something is wrong.
Fauvel and her student Emily Noordyke are also working on a way to keep tabs on the pollen bees bring back to the hives. There’s a pollen trap on one of the hives, and Fauvel opens it up to show me the brilliant orange goldenrod pollen inside.
“Starting in Michigan next year, we want to get a few beekeepers to collect pollen,” Fauvel says. “Then we would take the data as to how much pollen is available in different areas of Michigan. With that, we’d be able to find the hot spots for pollen on a map.”
Fauvel says bee nutrition is not as well understood as it could be, so more research on pollen will help fill in the gaps.
Beekeepers around the country are still losing lots of bees every year. Engelsma says on average, annual losses this year were 44 percent.
“I started keeping bees in the 1980s, and a 10 percent loss in those days was pretty normal,” he says. “Now, if you have a 10 percent loss, you’re jumping with joy. It’s much closer to a third or more.”
The Grand Valley researchers hope that pulling together a lot of data could help bring these losses down. Right now, there are more than 160 scales on hives all over the country. But for a data guy like Engelsma, that’s nowhere near enough.
“I’m a computer scientist, so I love data. I’d love to see thousands, tens of thousands,” Engelsma says.
He says other people are also exploring the intersection between beekeeping and technology.
“I’ve seen do-it-yourself projects where people are using bee counters using sensors. One of the vendors we work with, Arnia, actually has acoustic sensors in the hive. And they’re doing predictive type algorithms based on the acoustics within bee colonies. So there is a lot of geeky stuff happening in beehives these days.”
He says they’re now working to send the data they collect back to beekeepers to take the best care of their bees.
“It’d be really great, especially if you’re a beginning beekeeper, to get a notification on your phone that says, you know, ‘There’s nectar flow in your area—be sure to give your bees enough space’; or, ‘High mite counts have been detected in your locality—be sure to be monitoring your colonies and intervene if necessary.’”
This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio's Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan. If you keep bees and want to get involved in the project, you can find out how on the Sentinel Apiary Project‘s website.