Sweet local app aims to gather data on vanishing honeybees

What do NASA, Grand Valley State University, and a new software app have in common? They're coming together to gather data sets that could be the first step in solving the worldwide problem of vanishing honeybees. Steven Thomas Kent finds out how GVSU professors are using big data to help local beekeepers save the beehives.
The plight of honeybees around the world has been written about extensively in the media over the past few years, but for those who’ve managed to miss the rising chorus of alarm, the issue can be summed up quickly: The bees are in trouble, and, to borrow from Dylan, the hour is getting late.

Over the past winter, almost 25 percent of all American honeybees died off, according to data published in May — a staggering figure to the uninitiated, maybe, but actually an improvement from previous winters. In 2012-13, for example, bees died off at a rate of 30.5 percent.

The improvement this year, the federal government warns in a recent report, is not enough to guarantee the long-term survival of honeybees: the winged pollinators are dying faster than their numbers can be replenished, and the current rate of loss is unsustainable.

Jonathan EngelsmaOne potentially game-changing effort to gather data and help explain the devastating honeybee losses, though, is coming partially out of West Michigan. Several faculty members and passionate bee enthusiasts at Grand Valley State University have teamed up to develop a software app and web portal that works with specialized scales to monitor beehives and record the resulting data automatically.

The faculty members and graduate students who developed the software hope the information their creation gathers and transmits can help both individual beekeepers and the Bee Informed Project (BIP), a national research project that hopes to unravel the mystery of honeybee decline, according to Professor Jonathan Engelsma of Grand Valley State University.

“The trend right now is to solve hard problems with big data,” says Engelsma, a GVSU professor of computing and information sciences and a semi-professional beekeeper who helped to develop the software and web portal. “Google does this very well with Search. There are things happening right now in honeybee colonies that the best minds in the world can’t understand, and unlike Google, we don’t have terabytes of data to work with. So this is a first step toward creating data sets that we hope, if we capture the data over a long time, then entomologists, epidemiologists — people who understand this stuff at a biological level — can use this data to start to try and answer some questions.”

Although Engelsma teaches in the information sciences at Grand Valley and worked for most of his career doing research and development for Motorola, he also comes from a family of beekeepers and discovered a driving passion for the craft in high school. He put his bee-farming work on hold during his Motorola years, when he lived in Chicago, but immediately dove back in when he returned to Michigan to teach for Grand Valley a few years ago.

Engelsma now uses the GVSU-developed scale-and-software technology, which is called the BIP Hive Scale Portal, to monitor his own hives, checking in on his bees from his office computer and other locations during the working week.

The software created at GVSU works with digital monitoring scales to record data on an individual honeybee hive. Beekeepers place an individual hive on the scale, which records the weight and also contains sensors to record the humidity, external temperature and sometimes the internal temperature of the hive. Additional electronics on the scale create a small, local radio frequency network and bounce the data to a collector unit, which contains a modem and serves the data up to the cloud-based software that finally records the information.

If that seems like a fairly basic mechanism for logging data in the digital age, consider the previous state of beekeeping data-gathering, even at the largest research projects: Recording measurements by hand, entering them into a spreadsheet and e-mailing them as an attachment to a researcher who enters them into a database.

A hive with electronic scale below it.And although weight, temperature and humidity might seem like rather limited measurements, Engelsma says they can tell a beekeeper quite a lot about the state of a hive. The weight, in particular, is a critical metric: Fluctuations in weight can tell a keeper about the amount of nectar coming into the hive, the amount of honey being produced and consumed, and when a large number of bees enter or leave the hive.

These simple metrics can tell an individual beekeeper a great deal about the state of his colonies, Engelsma says, and can help gauge the results of different beekeeping methods, allowing a beekeeper to figure out the most effective practices and share that information with other local beekeepers and clubs in a digital, data-based fashion.

However, even more important, he says, is the potential that streamlined data-gathering offers for scientific research into honeybee decline.

“If we’re seeing trends in parts of the country, [researchers] can go back,” he says. “Let’s say a certain region loses a higher proportion of bees than usual — they can go back now and say, ‘What was going on in the 12 months prior to the collapse? Is there anything that jumps out at us, can help us make a hypothesis we can test scientifically?

“It’s amazing what you can ferret out of large data sets these days,” he adds. “I think there’s a lot of promise here, but there’s also still a lot of work to be done if we’re gonna solve the problems facing honeybees.”

Those problems are manifold, and scientists continue to debate which among them are most squarely responsible for the current struggles of the honeybee. Bees face a variety of bacteria, pests and parasites, such as the particularly-nasty Varroa destructor mite; declining foraging areas for pollen due to current agricultural monocropping practices, and tainted food supplies due to commercial pesticides and insecticides, especially those of the variety known as “neonicotinoids.”

The conventional thinking among bee experts is that all of these factors converge to play a role in the particular honeybee blight known as “colony collapse disorder” — a phenomenon in which whole bee colonies simply abandon their hives without known warning and disappear into the wild.

“There are a lot of things going on [with honeybees],” says Engelsma, “but the whole ‘colony collapse’ phenomenon is a bit more mysterious. It’s like someone’s dead and you can’t find their body.

“If you see a bee colony in a tree around here during the summer,” Engelsma adds, “chances are that’s a swarm that left a commercial or domestic beekeeper, and probably by next spring they’ll be dead. Some people are like, ‘Well, I’ve had bees in that tree for six years now.’ But what’s really happening is that the old bees died and new ones moved in before you even realized it.”

Originally, Engelsma and his team of graduate students designed the software and web portal as a capstone project, to work with a prototype scale developed by GVSU engineering faculty member John Ferris and a group of his students. However, they decided early on that they didn’t have the resources to build the hardware at a larger scale and manage the commitments of a retail operation.

Instead, they partnered with a North Carolina-based company, Solutionbee, to design and manufacture a line of monitor-scales -- officially called "Smart Hive Monitors" -- which will begin shipping later this month. When beekeepers set up their scale and software, they will have the option to join in with the larger research movement and transmit their data to Bee Informed, as well.

At a price of $450 per scale, beekeepers may not be able to afford a large number of scales, but can purchase one scale and rotate it among various hives, Engelsma notes. And for individual amateur beekeepers for whom the cost is prohibitive, Engelsma says that local beekeeping clubs might pool together and purchase a scale or two to share amongst themselves, as they often do with other beekeeping equipment for applications like honey processing.

The Hive Scale Portal software also works with another brand of scale manufactured by Swienty in the U.K. and Engelsma says the group can easily provide a copy of their programmable interface and allow any other interested scale manufacturer to implement their software in the future.

“So the idea is that beekeepers or beekeeping clubs will buy one of these devices,” Engelsma says, “and by opting in to [the Bee Informed Project] they can donate their data to science as well. Bee Informed collects data from all over through their field teams, as well as now this new automated mechanism. Then they do research on this data and try to get to the bottom of what these issues are.”

Although Engelsma and his students played a major role in developing the Hive Scale Portal software, he credits GVSU liberal arts associate professor Anne Marie Fauvel for the project’s creation and initial momentum.

A queen bee.Fauvel, who has taught in biology, food studies, and ecology and sustainability at GVSU, says she became “obsessed” with bees several years ago when she peeked into a neighbor’s hive, and immediately set out to learn everything she could about the little striped marvels. She soon began keeping her own bees and successfully lobbied the university to begin keeping an on-campus apiary. However, she admits she wasn’t sure at first how to incorporate the university’s modest bee yard into a bigger vision for meaningful research.

“I’m a big picture person,” says Fauvel, “so I’d really like to save the world, but I asked myself, ‘What can you do with two bee hives?’ You can’t get a lot of data from two hives.

“My husband suggested I have some engineering students build a scale that could weigh the hives,” she continues. “To be honest, I was like: ‘Yuck! Are you kidding me? We’ll build a bee scale and then I can see how much my bees weigh? That sounds like the dullest thing in the world to me.’”

Still, Fauvel went on the internet to do a quick search about honeybee hive weight, and found a NASA research project, HoneyBeeNet, which gathered data on honeybees and used it for a variety of predictive and informational purposes. When she e-mailed the director, he told her the project currently had no data from Michigan at all — data that could provide information about the changes in pollination seasons in the region, and which could have implications far beyond just the lives and health of honeybees themselves.

“From figuring out the bee data and larger data about the greening of the earth,” she says, “they were able to make some conclusions about climate change. And I began to think: ‘Hey, this is changing the world, after all.’”

While Fauvel got in touch with Engelsma and began to develop the scales, NASA merged HoneyBeeNet into Bee Informed, which now carries on as the most large-scale and ambitious honeybee research project in the United States. Fauvel met the director of BIP, Dennis VanEngelsdorp, at a beekeeping conference, and told him about the work being done at GVSU.

VanEngelsdorp and his colleagues at BIP, it turns out, had been thinking about the need for just such automation in the study of honeybees, and Fauvel and her GVSU peers began to work closely with BIP from that point on.

“There’s plenty of research done on [bee] habitats, and some on pesticides,” Fauvel says, “but all these things are being studied in isolation. BIP is trying to pull all this data together and look at this as an epidemiological study, by looking at all the variables involved.”

Both Fauvel and Engelsma point out that a personal fondness for bees is the least of requirements to start getting concerned about what’s going on with American honeybee populations. As the most important pollinators left in our agricultural chain, experts estimate that about one-third of the modern American diet is directly connected to honeybees.

“Even if you’re not a beekeeper or not incredibly fascinated with how interesting these little insects are,” Fauvel says, “anyone can recognize how important the honeybee is — not only in our food supply but as a bioindicator of connections in nature. So the more we study them, the more we know about all these connections and other things going on in our environment.”

John Ebers of Michigan Bee Co. said that he thinks the new technology could prove useful for novice beekeepers and experts alike, and that it would be an improvement on his current level of web app integration, which consists of checking the weather on his Macbook Pro. Although Ebers is a highly-experienced beekeeper who stays up-to-date on the most cutting-edge research developments into honeybees, he still gathers data on a beehive the old-fashioned way, by cracking open the lid and eyeballing what he sees.

“If i had this, I could check it on my iPhone while i’m out and about,” Ebers says, “and that would just make my job — I mean, you always wanna go and look in your hives, but to be able to pull something up on a computer is sometimes nice too.
“Without ever using the tech,” he adds, “just knowing what it measures and the functionality — I mean, if it measures humidity, temperature and weight [of a hive], that tells a beekeeper a lot. It gives you I guess another level of insight. It would be very helpful for a new beekeeper, to help them understand what’s going on in that hive from a metrics standpoint.”

Ebers also says that he thinks a scale with sensors that can monitor chemical concentrations in a hive might provide the next important step for honeybee research, pointing to recent studies out of Harvard and other major universities that single out neonicotinoid-type pesticides as the single largest factor in beehive collapses.

“Some type of chemical monitoring would seem to be the next evolution, or version two,” he says. “It’s becoming more and more apparent that what is quote-unquote colony collapse … There’s a number of reasons, but of those, four or five chemicals seem to be the common denominator.”

Professor Engelsma says that the Hive Scale Portal project is emblematic of the way that Grand Valley faculty strive to find projects that can involve students in solving real-world problems, and also of the growing attention in the scientific community and the media toward the future of American honeybees.

“When we’re at a farmer’s market selling honey,” Engelsma says, “the general public is becoming very aware of these issues. And that’s really important, because if the honeybees are in trouble, we’re in trouble too.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird

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