You've probably heard by now that bees are dying in record numbers. They're being poisoned by pesticides while urbanization encroaches on bees' natural habitats, leaving them with fewer places to live and fewer wildflowers to feed on, says Harvard biologist James Crall, who studies bumblebees.
The die-off comes as the world’s human population is expected to grow from 7 billion in 2010 to 9.8 billion in 2050; as incomes rise, food producers will need to supply 56 percent more calories to meet growing demand, according to a December report by the World Resource Institute. That's going to be hard to do without the wild bees farmers have traditionally relied on to pollinate their crops. "An enormous amount of our food crops depend on animal pollinators," Crall says, highlighting fruits, nuts, and berries.
Robotic pollinators may someday be at least a partial solution to the problem, but in the meantime farmers are turning to a lower-tech solution: hiring commercial beekeepers to lug hives around the country to pollinate crops. But these captive bees face some of the same dangers as wild bees. US beekeepers lost 40 percent of their colonies in 2017, on top of a 33 percent decline the year before, according to a survey by Auburn University and the University of Maryland.
An Irish company called ApisProtect wants to give commercial beekeepers a high-tech helping hand. The company embeds sensors into hives that measure movement, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide, along with a microphone for monitoring sound. Then it sells an app-based monitoring service to beekeepers for a monthly fee. It also offers alerts, warning customers, for example, if a hive is too warm or too cold, or if it has fallen over based on accelerometer data.
That could be a real time saver for beekeepers with large numbers of hives distributed over large areas. "The beauty of the whole system is that it can happen remotely," says Dan Borkoski, an apiary research associate at the University of Delaware. Borkoski has been using ApisProtect's service to monitor 20 of the university's hives in Georgetown, Delaware, since last fall. "It takes me an hour and a half to drive to that bee yard," Borkoski says. More important, he adds, the app reduces how often beekeepers open hives, which can be extremely disruptive to colonies.
The bigger idea behind ApisProtect is to compile the data gathered from customers and run it through machine-learning algorithms to glean more useful information, such as the health of the colony and steps a beekeeper might take to improve it. "Beekeepers don't want to know the humidity in their beehives, they want to know which are healthy or which need attention," says ApisProtect founder and CEO Fiona Edwards Murphy.
It's too early to judge whether the company will be able to deliver useful insights from the data it collects, Borkoski says. Another early adopter, Jane Sueme, a beekeeper and owner of a beekeeping supply store called Isabee's in St. Louis, agrees. But she’s optimistic about the potential.
Murphy began developing the technology while studying electrical engineering at University College Cork in 2013. "That was when everyone was sort of panicking about bees," she says. "I looked around to see if anyone was doing any work with sensors in beehives and saw that hardly anyone had done any work in the space." Soon commercial beekeepers were asking to use her technology, and she realized it would have commercial value. She founded ApisProtect in 2017, and the company raised $1.8 million in venture funding last year.
ApisProtect is part of a larger movement bringing information technology to beekeeping, Sueme says. She says the equipment hasn’t changed much since the Langstroth hive in the 1850s. Now, she says, there's a growing demand for better ways to monitor the bees that live inside.
Sueme is also testing an app developed by researchers at the University of Montana called Bee Health Guru that can assess the health of a colony by listening to the bees with a smartphone's built-in microphone, as well as an internet-connected scale from a company called Arnia that monitors the weight of beehives. The gadget also has a few sensors, but what sets ApisProtect apart, Sueme says, is that instead of monitoring bees from outside the hive, the company embeds its technology inside the hive itself.
Crall, whose work involves using QR codes to track individual bumblebees, says ApisProtect has a novel approach that could help beekeepers understand how, say, pesticides affect a colony's behavior. He worries that excessive reliance on commercial bees for pollination could contribute to the decline of wild bees. But right now, the need for a better understanding of what's happening to bees makes technology like ApisProtect important.
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