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Tracking honey bees with big data

You can thank a honey bee for pollinating about one 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 and diseases and pests, and they’re losing habitat.

Two Grand Valley State University professors are using technology to track the health of hives in a new way.

Anne Marie Fauvel, a liberal arts and biology professor, and Jonathan Engelsma, a computer science professor, are both beekeepers. They’re using the weight of the beehives to see how the bees are doing.

Liberal arts and biology professor Anne Marie Fauvel with her student Emily Noordyke, and computer science professor Jonathan Engelsma.
Credit Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Liberal arts and biology professor Anne Marie Fauvel with her student Emily Noordyke, and computer science professor Jonathan Engelsma.

“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 Fauvel.

I met up with Fauvel and Engelsma one morning recently. The first thing they did was zip me into a full-body bee suit.

“It’s a little inconvenient, you feel like you’re going in a biohazard suit,” says Fauvel.

Fauvel says 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 so much honey stores to defend, they sometimes will come at you at bit, but most of the time they don't."

So we’re wearing these bee suits and gloves just in case.

There are nine colonies at the GVSU apiary in Holland.

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 that tracks honey bee health. It’s called the Bee Informed Partnership.

Bee hive scale
Credit Rebecca Williams
This scale weighs beehives, which lets researchers determine the health of a hive.

Weighing in

These two scientists designed a way to learn about the health of a hive from its weight. 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 24 by 7 the colony," says Engelsma. "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, and then we would take the data as to how much pollen is available in different areas of Michigan," she says. "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.

Nationwide bee losses

Beekeepers around the country are still losing lots of bees every year. Engelsma says on average, annual losses this year were 44%.

“I started keeping bees in the 1980s, and a 10% loss in those days was pretty normal. Now if you have a 10% loss, you’re jumping with joy. It’s much closer to a third or more,” he says.

And that’s the goal of this project – to bring together a lot of data to see how beekeepers are doing. There are more than 160 scales on hives all over the country so far.

Credit GVSU
A map of hives participating in the scale project.

But for a data guy – that’s nowhere near enough.

“I’m a computer scientist so I love data. I’d love to see thousands, tens of thousands,” says Engelsma.

High tech beekeeping

Engelsma 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 laughs.

He says now, they’re working to send data 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,'" he says. "Or 'high mite counts have been detected in your locality: be sure to be monitoring your colonies and intervening if necessary.'”

If you keep bees and want to get involved in the project, you can find out how on the Sentinel Apiary Project site.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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