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Technology and connectivity: tipping the balance to save the world’s bees?

As the growing network of smart, connected devices starts to change our world, scientists are increasingly looking to technology for new applications — often in the most unexpected spheres. With global bee populations already declining significantly and under new pressure from disease, an innovative technology-based solution could provide a new source of hope for bee farmers across the world. Called “MiteNot”, the technology is currently being trialled in America, with connectivity being provided by Gemalto’s machine-to-machine (M2M) module. Should trials prove effective, the solution might hold new hope for South Africa’s own bee populations – currently under threat from American Foul Brood Disease.

Bees: taken for granted by most of us in terms of the critical role pollination plays in ensuring food security for our families and communities. With climate and habitat changes already impacting many wild bee populations, new diseases are now spreading and wiping out hives across the world — threatening food security on many continents, including our own.

The United States has been particularly hard hit, with bee numbers dwindling to the extent that Californian farmers are now loaning hives from other states to ensure that cash crops like avocados and almonds are properly pollinated.

South Africa has been similarly affected, with some 40% of the bee population in our agricultural heartland – the Western Cape – decimated by American Foul Brood (AFB) disease. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries fears that this could increase pollination costs and affect crop production across the region. In an effort to prevent AFB from spreading, it has recommended that bee products like beeswax should not be exported from the province. The potential knock-on effect for farmers and farm workers is substantial, given that our agriculture industry is worth R20 billion a year and provides some 700 000 jobs.

Because bees play such an important role in producing crops all around the world, this is clearly a significant crisis which, if left unsolved, could affect food security on a global scale. Smart, connected technologies are, however, emerging as a potential weapon in this particular battle – offering new hope for local bee farmers.

A sophisticated technology-based solution is currently being trialled in America by a team led by Marla Spivak, McKnight University Professor of apiculture/ social insects at the University of Minnesota. The team is investigating whether it can successfully help control the mites that appear to cause the Colony Collapse Disorder currently decimating US bee populations.

Called MiteNot, the solution comprises a smart beehive frame that automatically monitors and manages the temperature within beehives. Essentially a flexible screen-printed circuit designed to look like a standard honeycomb, MiteNot’s sensors monitor the temperature of 32 specific elements of the hive that indicate brood status and different stages of the mites reproductive cycle.

The data is then fed back to the researchers by an M2M module, which acts as a cellular gateway – ensuring connectivity and transmitting the information to an app developed by Eltopia, BeeSafe. When specific thresholds are met, BeeSafe then communicates back to the MiteNot unit via the M2M module, programming it to elevate heat within certain areas of the hive to sterilise the mite larvae, leaving the bees and their honey safe.

Due for commercial release towards the end of this year, the solution combines technology and applied science in a way that allows farmers to benefit from intellectual property developed at an academic institution—in a very practical way too.

There’s every indication that this technology could be adapted to enable other solutions to additional challenges facing bees. American Foul Brood disease for example, is caused by a bacterium. When a similar solution is created, there’s thus a very good chance that machine-to-machine connectivity will play a role in making it practical.

The ability to link smart machines and sensors to sophisticated software is already transforming other industries, such as logistics and health care. Examples include smart pill dispensers to ensure that patients comply with treatment regimes, and connected on-board devices that take fleet management to the next level.

We are just at the beginning of this revolution, particularly so in agriculture. As climate change impacts farmers more and more, technology will undoubtedly have a growing role to play. As such, MiteNot could be one of a series of critical solutions – offering farmers new means of ensuring productivity and efficiency in our ever-changing world.

  • Ward Johnson

    Two years ago, my wife, Ann, and I started a foundation in Minneapolis, to try to save the Monarch Butterfly. The foundation is SaveOurMonarchs Foundation, devoted to saving Monarchs by planting Milkweed seeds.

    So now SaveOurMonarchs.org offers free milkweed seeds to anyone. You can just send your request for seeds to SaveOurMonarchs.org and click on ‘Get ‘Seeds’.

    Ward Johnson

  • Pingback: Review of Bee Health Decline » Technology and connectivity: tipping the balance to save the world’s bees?()

  • Aldo Bello

    Ward…are you seeing positive changes? Are you having an impact?

  • nicephotog

    About Foulbrood bacteria…. All i’ve known of bacteria is it can live and reproduce well over a variety of high temperature well unless maximum threshold is reached.
    Inversely on the otherhand, higher more complex delicate and simple organisms such as insects (bees) have as described below a threshold maximum much lower than any bacteria.
    The majority of commercial hives are kept in the sun and may not have heat shielded lids.
    Most lids and hives in the recreational license and by price have only a single tin lid, commercial hives probably have these by economics, which raises temperature within inches of the lid when in strong sunlight in summer to no different than the back of a solar panel such as 50 Celsius – 60 – 70 Celsius and does the fact a “heater bee” itself appears to have the optimum laboratory temperature of 45 Celsius the problem. The larvae themselves are probably suffering cannot have “entrance fanning bees”(coolers) successful at lowering the heat.
    Bacteria has the tendancy to increase and accelerate its’growth and breeding in sync with rises of temperature.
    The attacking bacteria problem combination environment is there with some types of lids and location together.

    http://www.arnia.co.uk/temperature-and-thermoregulation-in-the-beehive/
    …..Honey bees maintain the temperature of the brood nest between 32°C and optimally 35°C
    …. a heater bee can hold this position for up to 30 minutes while its thorax is at around 43°C

    http://www.oie.int/fileadmin/Home/eng/Health_standards/tahm/2.02.03_EUROPEAN_FOULB.pdf
    ………..This organism is isolated most efficiently by inoculating decimal dilutions of the aqueous suspension into agar that has been maintained molten at 45°C and which is then poured into plates. The plates must be incubated anaerobically, such as in McIntosh and Fildes jars in an atmosphere of approximately 5–10% carbon dioxide (CO2) at 35°C. Small white opaque colonies of M. plutonius usually appear within 4 days…………..
    Dehydration is also commonly mentioned in the larvae corpse symptom list with bacteria.
    A large quantity points to overheating!

    There is a lid design nick-named a “migratory lid” in Australia that comprises a “flat masonite sheet cover” over the hive super “topmost section”, then four edge blocks 1 1/2 inches high to sit under the tin cover with four holes with vent covers to allow slow but able air flow through between the tin (as a multi section lid). The masonite cover requires a small 3cm diameter hole in the center for air flow(oxygen context only).
    This is what i have over my hive because “nothing in Australia would survive the tin lid temperature” when it were suddenly either or be exposed within two inches of the tin lid on some days !

    Another feature of bees is swarming, and with wild bees i always wondered why leave a perfectly good nest once a year? Probably because its “cleaner” TOO, not merely reproduction and overcrowding.
    Thinking to try each year at about 20 days before the mid day of Autumn , put a new brood box with either foundation-frames or completely drained recent construction(new wax) honey frames from same sized super into a new super for brood , put the queen excluder under the old brood box and place the queen in the new separated under brood box and remove the old brood box when the last brood have hatched in the old box.
    Leave the empty of larvae brood frames super set outside for the forage in it to be removed and retrieved to the new box.

  • nicephotog

    One factor in fouldbrood bacteria is probably temperature because of immense direct radiation from tin hive lids.

    However, a weird little known feature of all creatures is “inbreeding ability”. Inbreeding never did anything any good and while there is much possibility to occur, the real reason it could occur with managed(non wild hives) is because of lack of drones anywhere and mainly in the spring summer, from “starvation”(the drones starve or are very inactive from starvation).

    This would be because of a set of features not normally mentioned in the construction of a hive.
    1. The queen excluders
    2. The reservoir box.

    The above 2 are not mentioned much.

    The reservoir box is a honey super above the brood box with a larger hole round wire mesh the queen can near get through but slips and falls off because she is too large.
    The round wire larger hole excluder allows drones through although they are as wide as the queen.

    This reservoir stops the drones starving to death.

    The top of the reservoir box(either a full deep or WSP-three quarter size) then has a narrower plastic excluder only the workers are likely to get through.
    Queen excluder hole sizes are a propriety maker size and should be evaluated.
    There should be at least a brood box(has very little food for 20 – 40 drones and is mostly larvae very little of anything edible !!! )
    AND
    a reservoir for drones and wintering.

    Too few available or unable starving drones could cause inbreeding statistically.

    Inbreeding never did anything any good no matter how hardy capable against it by it’s species !!!