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High-tech hives

Beekeepers might get constant hive conditions at their fingertips once a student project out of Assiniboine Community College is fully developed

Kent Collins has a different idea of the ideal beehive — it involves a lot more wiring.

Collins, along with his partner, Adam Lennox, are the minds behind the Bee Aware hive-monitoring system, a remote sensing system that promises real-time hive feedback to beekeepers. The project is the pinnacle, or “capstone project” of their study in Communications Engineering Technology at Assiniboine Community College (ACC).

The project’s inspiration came after two friends of Collins, Jordan Kulbacki and Tim Kitz, launched 4K Honey outside of Brandon.

“It seemed like they were putting in a lot of hours and a lot of work,” Collins said.

He sat down with Kulbacki and Kitz when it came time for his own capstone project. The two beekeepers suggested that a hive-monitoring system would significantly improve their operation and agreed to work with Collins to help develop such a system.

“Typically, we only visit a yard every one to two weeks,” Kulbacki said in a statement released by ACC. “These devices would give us a way to monitor our hives 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If a hive is having issues, we can find out sooner and do what we can to correct it or save the hive, which saves us both time and money.”

What is involved?

Collins and Lennox spent two months developing Bee Aware under lab conditions, with Collins focused on the sensors themselves, while Lennox developed the network connecting the system to a farmer’s email or smartphone.

In its current form, the system could monitor 10 hives per yard, reporting data to a central hub up to 10 kilometres away, the pair says.

The finished product integrates four sensors. Basic heat and humidity sensors report the internal conditions of the hive, while a gyroscope detects if a hive is tilting or fallen down.

The owners of 4K Honey say they have previously lost hives when cattle have kicked or knocked them over in winter, exposing the dormant bees. Collins hopes the gyroscope will help address that worry, letting a farmer know immediately that a hive has moved and may need to be rescued.

Jordan Kulbacki, one of the owners of 4K Honey, examines a beehive at his farm.
photo: Submitted

Collins also hopes that measuring noise will help detect distress early. The system sends an alert when hive noise reaches 65 decibels, a level that Collins says is reflected in the literature for distressed bees.

“Any research that I found is that if the bees are in distress, they make quite a bit of noise,” he said.

The noise sensor got special note after the project was presented to the pair’s instructors. A release from ACC praising the new system argued the noise sensor could tip apiarists off if a hive loses its queen since the bees will, “fan their wings to move air around the hive, hoping to find her scent.”

A laser sensor rounds out the preliminary version of the system. The two designers say they hope to get a better handle on bee movements by registering when clusters come and go from the hive.

“What I want to do is log the times when they leave and the times when they come back. How long is their day? Does it get shorter with the sunlight? Do they care about sunlight? Or do they just do it until they’re done?” Collins said.

He also wants to see if that data changes through the year according to what flowers are available.

That data might help ramp up efficiencies and yield, he said, an argument similar to those made in the grain sector, where producers might point to yield mapping, soil tests, precision planting and other applications of data agriculture.

The pair put a tentative $1,000 price tag to their system, along with “low” ongoing operation costs.

Problems of scale

But while the system promises data and monitoring currently unknown to the average Manitoba beekeeper, there is still one major data point missing from the system: weight.

Weight is already a proven measure for hive health, according to Manitoba’s provincial apiarist, Rhéal Lafrenière.

“If the hive is losing weight or is kind of flatlined while there are other hives that are gaining weight, that could clue (the beekeeper) in to needing to go to that yard site to investigate why some of the hives, or at least that monitored hive, is not performing like another monitored hive in the yard,” he said.

Noise levels could be valuable, he noted, although that correlation to hive health is still a question in the industry.

The lack of a weight sensor is a gap, Collins acknowledged, one that the owners of 4K Honey have already relayed to him and that he someday hopes to fill.

“A weight sensor was something that I definitely wanted to put in, but as I only had two months to do it, I had to cut it off somewhere,” he said.

Previous experience

Lafrenière says there is potential in the technology and he is happy to see it developed, so long as the data can be translated into management decisions.

“I think there’s kind of a bit of a race going on with technologies. Everyone’s looking to create a better mousetrap and, to me, that’s fantastic,” he said.

The technology itself has been available for a decade or more, he went on, but adoption has been slow, marred by logistical problems and uncertain returns from the investment.

Adam Lennox (left), and Kent Collins, recent graduates in Communications Engineering Technology at Assiniboine Community College, have designed a wireless sensor network to be installed inside beehives, providing instant feedback to beekeepers.
photo: Submitted

“It’s not new, new, in the sense that nobody’s ever tried this before,” he said. “I think there have been, and there are actually services out there that offer things directly to the beekeeping industry on remote sensing.”

Beekeepers are still undecided on which metrics will actually matter to the bottom line, Lafrenière said, and that uncertainty may be holding them back from spending a four-digit figure on monitoring.

The Manitoba Beekeepers Association has tried similar technology. The organization tapped Growing Forward 2 funding to purchase sensors from the United Kingdom, such sensors being more common on the commercial market in Europe.

The sensors measured weight, noise and both internal and external temperature, Lafrenière said.

That project stalled in Manitoba’s harsh winters, however. The system proved ill equipped for temperatures below -20 C. Despite the monitors being marketed as solar powered and rechargeable, batteries froze and the system either stopped sending data or stopped recording entirely.

Collins and his partner hope their own solar power system will have better luck. The Bee Aware system can currently be run with a single battery bank and four solar panels. A solar tracker is also in the works, a program that would allow the system to find the ideal panel angle for sun exposure.

“The technology is getting to the point where I think we can use it,” Collins said.

The system functioned well in summer conditions, although Collins admits it has yet to face its first stress test in the winter.

Collins also noted that the solar system is not a “be all and end all” approach to the power issue, and some development is still needed.

Field testing

Collins now hopes to get Bee Aware out of the lab and into a working hive.

Collins and Lennox did not have the opportunity to field test the system before graduation, Collins said, since the project was timed largely during winter and beekeepers were reluctant to disturb their dormant hives.

They are still developing the solar tracker and Collins still wants to add the weight sensor suggested by 4K Honey. Collins also wants to reduce the design’s width from about 1-1/2 inches to less than one-quarter inch, making it less cumbersome in the hive.

A field test is on the agenda this summer, he said, and that may also tag areas that still need development.

“Everything has been tested in my garage under pretty much perfect circumstances,” he said. “One of our biggest concerns is once we get this unit into a hive, are the bees going to reject it or are they going to cover everything with wax and then cover all of my sensors so that the sound sensor doesn’t work and the temperature and humidity sensor would be off?”

The project will have to wait on funding before stepping closer to the market. Both Lennox and Collins are only recently graduated, and are focused on getting jobs, Collins said.

“I don’t want to abandon this thing altogether because it seems to be getting a lot of buzz,” he said. “A lot of people really like it and then the beekeepers I talked to, they really liked the idea of it.”

They have yet to explore grants to continue their work.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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