At Project Apis m., we often talk about the practical applied impact of the research we support. While researching and developing tools for nutrition, varroa, nosema, queen shipping, and beyond, all have clear value to the beekeeper and the bee. The Healthy Hives 2020 initiative, funded by Bayer and administered by PAm, had a unique priority, to “Evaluate the use of “smart hive” technology to monitor honey bee colony health during commercial migratory operations”. This month’s featured research is a HH2020 ‘smart hive’ project selected to develop tools for beekeepers that can help them “conduct their own investigations and research” and improve management practices through better and more accurate data collection. We interviewed the beekeeper participating in the project, to talk about what value the end user might expect from using this new technology in their management.
Recognizing the lack of measured data in commercial beekeeping operations and a potential for management technology to enable bigger field trials, Dr. Brandon Hopkins at the Department of Entomology at Washington State University has been investigating and developing management technologies for beekeepers.
While working on this project, Dr. Hopkins began working with Brody Tomazin, Commercial Beekeeper at 2J Honey Farms and Round Valley Honey Company, and President of the Idaho Honey Industry Association.
Tomazin had been experiencing a year of heavy colony losses, needed to split some hives after almond pollination, and wanted to ask some important questions about his operation:
* Did 2-frame nucleus colonies (nucs) show higher rates of mortality and/or poorer yields than 3-frame nucs over the course of a season?
* Was there a difference in the performance and survival of queen cells from different providers?
Tomazin was initially considering using push-pins and visual observation to help him track queen productivity and survival – a tedious and cumbersome task to complete with any level of accuracy.
As bees travel to and from pollination events and different yards, keeping tabs on which pallet has been where can be labor intensive or inaccurate. Hand-written data can get lost, and beekeepers often rely on markings on the hive boxes and piles of paperwork. Additionally, factors like the floral abundance in a particular yard that colony has been in, or a pesticide exposure at a pollination event can affect the colony’s performance down the line– so trying to identify the impact of just one factor – like the number of frames in the original nuc, or the origin of the queen, can be tricky using paper records.
Tomazin decided to give the system that Dr. Hopkins is developing a try, and they attached RFID (radio frequency identification device) tags to Tomazin’s colonies and pallets. Each tag is associated with a data set – in this case, including the original number of frames in the nuc and the origin of the queen cell. Then, throughout the season any time the colonies were checked, treated, fed, or moved the tags could be scanned and data recorded though a smart phone or tablet which is then instantly delivered to the manager.
Tomazin said that scanning was simple “you can attach the scanner to your phone, walk past a hive, it and scans them all at a range. At the end, the system would tell you the number of bees in the yard, ask the source, and allow you to input feed and other data from the field.” The RFID tags also helped reduce the risk of crews missing pallets of bees that had been placed in less-visible areas.
2,000 colonies including 400 queens each from 5 different breeders, were monitored throughout this experiment, and 7,697 observations were delivered to Tomazin through a software program which helped sort and analyze the data, as well as deliver a gps location of each RFID tagged colony or pallet. Using this interface, yard location and field data come together to provide a clear picture of operation management and honey bee health.
Ultimately, throughout the season Tomazin was able to gather data about the performance of the 2-frame vs. 3-frame nucs as well as queen performance. What he found could potentially have a great impact on not only future management of his bees, but also on his bottom line.
Tomazin found 8% differences in performance between the best and worst performing queen cells. While not a scientifically statistical conclusion, it is a biological conclusion, and if you were to think about the implications in 8000 cells, it adds up. In fact, if this were a consistent result, applying this knowledge could save a beekeeper about $32,000 in queen losses alone, in addition to preventing unnecessary colony mortality.
The other information Tomazin was able to track was the success of the 2 frame vs 3 frame nucs. In this case, he found that the 2-frame nuc colonies “across the board, grew just as fast...” Having access to this conclusion could also save a beekeeper a whole lot of resources, and peace of mind, when splitting hives. Tomazin said “There are some years you’re set back, and knowing this was a significant finding. Every time we [split], we gain one extra nucs when we know that 2 frames will be just as strong.”
Tomazin also found a great benefit in the gps tracking capabilities of the system: “Another big help was being able to find the locations of the colonies and pallets. In North Dakota it’s not easy to navigate between 200 yards, and with help that is seasonal, having a gps location on the yard is significant. Most people are so quick with a smart phone and figuring apps out, so it was a pretty simple thing. Instead of struggling with maps and remote roads, the biggest challenge is remembering to put [your phone and scanner] in the truck before you leave.”
This management technology could offer many benefits to managers of commercial beekeeping operations. The basic elements of the system include durable RFID tags, hand held scanners and/or cell phone scanners, and software which can be accessed from a computer, tablet, or smart phone. These elements give managers the ability to collect data on employees and colonies alike. By placing RFID tags on either individual colonies or pallets, beekeepers can customize their software to collect the data they need. Ultimately, beekeepers could track each colony or pallet throughout the year - from nuc, to pollination events, to honey production. The software allows beekeepers to see at a glance, from anywhere, data points about each tagged colony – data points like what company provided the queen cell, how the colony was made up, how much honey it produced, when they were treated or fed, who assessed the brood and what the brood pattern looked like, and what yards and pollination events the colony has been through.
Dr. Hopkins is even working on developing a piece of equipment which attaches to forklifts – automatically scanning the pallet and recording it’s weight each time it is moved.
While it may sound a little complicated, one of the great things about this system is it’s customizable. Managers can ease into using it, developing and growing the amount of data inputs they receive as they learn the program and formulate the questions they want to answer about their own management decisions.
Tomazin says “The problem that I find most in beekeeping is that there’s too many variables. you never know unless the evidence is obvious. If we can narrow the variables we will have a better control of what helps and hurts.”
Dr. Hopkins’ work on this project is still in development. He is also working in collaboration with another HH2020 funded research project, led by Dr. Joseph Cazier at Appalachian State University; “Electronic Data Collection and Sensor Integration for Data Aggregation, Best Management Practices Data Mining and Smart Hive Development”
Click Here to read more about Dr. Hopkins and his work.
And Click Here to watch a Bee Culture Magazine Kim & Jim show webinar featuring Dr. Hopkins and Brady Tomazin talking about this project and partnership.
By Sharah Yaddaw
Project Apis m.