Beekeeping engineers bring cheap widgets to a 19th-century craft
Photo: Tom Rearick
Pity the poor beekeeper. While bee researchers play with high-frequency dancing robotic bees, DNA scanners, and forensic pollen analysis, beekeepers must scavenge 19th-century feed scales off eBay.
The problem is money. Even though bees play a crucial role in the pollination of agricultural products worth billions of dollars, a hive typically produces honey that's worth no more than US $1000 a year at retail. A few lucky beekeepers get hired by farmers to pollinate their crops, but the overall margin is still far too slim for fancy modern equipment. So beekeepers typically are able to track the health and honey-making performance of their charges in only the crudest of ways.
And although that may have been all right in previous centuries, in this one honeybees have come under increasing pressure from disease, pesticides, fragmentation of foraging space, and even a mysterious ailment known simply as colony collapse disorder. (Last fall, university researchers collaborating with U.S. Army experts in germ warfare announced that they had discovered a new virus and a common fungus that were present in all hives that suffered from collapse, but that conclusion has been questioned and does not necessarily point to a cure.) Ordinary beekeepers may need high-tech help, but it's not clear how they can afford it.
Tom Rearick, an electrical engineer, and some fellow "beehackers" are trying to change all that. He wants his site, BeeHacker.com, to become a hub of on-the-cheap development of appropriate technology for beekeepers, with projects ranging from simple hive scales to laser-based bee tracking. For example, a $20 luggage scale augmented with $5 to $10 of scrap hardware can check the weight of dozens of hives a day. That would give a rough idea of how much honey the bees are producing and of the general health of the hive. With Rearick's hack, you just lift one side of the hive gently with a pry bar connected to the scale by a cable. Assuming that honey and bees are evenly distributed inside the hive, the scale will stabilize at half the hive's weight.
Even better would be real-time monitoring of hive weight, which would allow not only the measuring of honey production but also tracking of the aggregate departure and arrival of the thousands of bees that forage from a hive every day. You can disassemble a $20 bathroom scale to yield four perfectly good strain gauges, but strain-gauge output tends to drift under constant load. Rearick thinks that some clever beehacking could get around the drift problem by focusing (with somewhat lower accuracy) on daily ups and downs, but the idea awaits more spare time and warm-weather testing.
Ultimately, a hacked hive would be able to report the entrance and exit of individual bees, and perhaps external sensors could track where they gather their pollen and what troubles they encounter along the way. Meanwhile, internal sensors would report temperature and humidity; provide the data to diagnose mite, fungus, and other infestations; and keep tabs on honey production—all using scavenged parts supervised by a few cheap microcontrollers. And even during the winter, when a hive is dormant, a microphone could monitor the sound levels of worker bees flexing their wing muscles to generate heat to warm the rest of the colony. (This is another area where beehackers will have to gather much more data before offering analyses deeper than "buzzing, good; no buzzing, bad.")
Rearick began his EE career at an aerospace company, where he worked on missile targeting. Next he moved to another aerospace company to run a computer vision group, and then he founded a small company to convert word-processing documents to hypertext. After IBM bought him out, he got an MBA and started another company that built a user-support chatbot for corporate Web sites. He sold that company and started yet another, this time making video management systems for (thus far) police interrogation rooms and car dealerships.
Rearick, who lives in Roswell, Ga., drifted into beehacking almost by chance: "Being a couple of foodies, my wife and I were considering getting chickens—for fresh eggs—or bees for honey. I decided that bees would be a lot less trouble." But as he worked his way into his new hobby, Rearick soon found out that beekeeping was not nearly as well documented a field as he had imagined, so his engineering instincts kicked in. He compares the current state of beekeeping to winemaking in the late 19th century, when phylloxera mites were devastating European vineyards, with no solution in sight. Since then, he points out, enology has been put on a firm scientific basis—those vineyards now use mite-resistant root stock, for instance.
And even as he faces the practical problems of hacking beehives, Rearick has found himself captivated by the puzzle of bee intelligence. Individual bees have just rudimentary brains and live for only about six weeks, yet the superorganism that is a swarm can make rapid decisions about rarely faced problems, such as the location of a new hive. For an engineer whose previous work involved repeated flirtations with artificial intelligence, this conundrum is more than he could have hoped for from a hobby initially intended to provide a few dozen annual jars of sweet goop.
So You Want to Keep Bees
First, are bees permitted where you live? Bee Culture magazine (see links below) lists 95 U.S. cities that don't allow beekeeping.
Assuming you're not in a no-bee zone, you'll need:
- Hive boxes;
- A site near enough to flowering plants and trees so that your bees can gather nectar, but far enough from neighbors who might get stung, flee in terror, or complain to local authorities;
- Bees (there are, of course, different breeds to choose from);
- Protective gear (at a minimum, gloves, helmet, and veil); and
- Feeding systems for times when nectar just isn't available.
You also need a tolerance for insects. With as many as tens of thousands of bees in a healthy hive, some of them are going to get into your clothes, car, house, and barbecue. But if you can keep your hives alive (even professional beekeepers report losing about one in six hives in a normal year), you will end up with both a surfeit of honey and the warm glow of contributing a vital service to your local flora.
Beekeeping sites are rife with advice for the tyro, but as Rearick found, there are nearly as many opinions as there are beekeepers. And some of the vital bits, he notes, aren't really written down at all but absorbed by apprenticeship. So find a beekeeper and start asking questions. Or combine the strategies—Bee Culture's site also has a "Find a Beekeeper Near You" link.