There are some sensors I’d like to have, but they are not on the market, at least not yet, or if they are on the market, they are not designed for beehives. These sensors would monitor the level of my liquid feed, detect when my supers were full, measure the quality of my honey, detect the presence and levels of Varroa, listen in on my bees pheromone communications, detect nectar scents and other hive odors, monitor the level of carbon dioxide, and sense the hive’s ventilation processes.
- Liquid Feed
- Honey Presence
- Honey Quality
- Carbon Dioxide
- UAV Drones
- Queen Locator
In the past, bees stored enough feed, in the form of pollen and honey, for their own year-round use and usually stored a surplus for the beekeeper to harvest. However modern agricultural and apicultural practices often require that bees be fed. While being fed, bees will consume some feed and store some. The rate the feeder is being emptied provides only partial information. Correlating feed data with hive weight data and brood volume data may be helpful.
Electronic feed monitoring devices
At this time we are unaware of any electronic feed monitoring devices. The simplest such device would report when the feeder is empty. A more sophisticated device would report the rate feed is being taken from the feeder.
Manual feed monitoring
Manual recording of feed consumption data is the current option. Beekeepers may note the date the feeder is filled, the amount of feed, and the date the feeder is found empty. If a container with graduated marks to indicate the quantity consumed is used, a more detailed record of consumption can be recorded. If bees are not taking feed as expected, it may indicate a problem: the feed may have gone bad, a nectar flow may have started, the number of bees may have decreased, etc.
If it is cold, it may be too cold for the bees to break cluster and reach the needed feed. Verifying that over-wintering colonies can occasionally warm up naturally and the bees can break cluster to reach stores of honey, syrup, or sugar patties is vital to colony survival. Measuring hive weight changes and feed consumption rates is one way to determine whether colonies have been configured so as to enable successful overwintering.
The main ingredients of honey are glucose and fructose. For diabetics, who must monitor the level of glucose in their blood, continuous glucose monitors have been developed. It seems plausible that these monitors could be adapted to detect the presence of honey in the parts of the hive designated to store honey. A honey detector would help disambiguate data from the weight sensor, as both bees and honey contribute to the weight of the hive.
Honey is ripe when bees cap it. The sugars have been transformed and sufficient water has been removed to prevent spoilage. Ripe honey detectors, located at the ends of a frame, near the bottom bar, could signal a frame’s readiness to be harvested. And a honey monitor in the winter stores could warn when the stores had been consumed.
It seems plausible that an in-hive or in-frame Ripe Honey Detector could be developed, though to date, none has appeared. These could be based on the continuous glucose monitors used by people with diabetes. There are numerous commercial continuous glucose monitors including:
Today, the annual cost of continuous glucose monitor for a human is thousands of dollars, but as we know, the costs of technology come down quickly, and a honey sensor, while it must be made of food-grade materials, need not meet the rigorous standards required for human medical technology.
In the laboratory, a number of methods are used in the routine quality control of honey. See, for example:
A simple portable testing device could help prevent beekeepers from accidentally mixing ‘honey’ made from sugar syrup or high-fructose corn syrup, with real honey made from nectar.
Odors in the hive include bees’ pheromones, foraged nectars, disease odors, and environmental scents. Each of these can tell us something useful about the state of our colonies.
Here we link to experimental e-noses detecting American Foulbrood and Varroa mites.
Bees communicate among themselves using pheromones. The ability to monitor the bees’ pheromone communication system would enable beekeepers to understand colony activity at a never-before-achieved level. Imagine knowing the quality of the queen, the hunger of the brood, or the presence of an alarming visitor to the hive. The chemical environment of the hive is complex, perhaps too complex for there to be a pheromone sensor system in the near future. Nevertheless, the bees themselves manage to sense specific pheromones, and proof-of-concept efforts such as Bovinose, which monitors bovine pheromones, and other “artificial nose” research, indicate that the task is achievable.
Besides pheromones, the detection of nectar scents would inform the beekeeper of nectar sources. When honey from specific floral sources results in premium prices, this information would be useful for telling beekeepers the start and end of the nectar flow, and like other sensors, could be especially useful when one’s colonies are in remote locations.
Many bee diseases have specific odors, the scent of American Foulbrood, for example is well-known, and Maryland’s Apiary Inspector even has trained a dog to detect it. The yeast associated with Small Hive Beetles also has a specific scent an artificial nose could detect. Varroa mites, unfortunately, are capable of mimicking the scent of a honey bee’s cuticular hydrocarbons, right down to the level of the individual colony, so they would evade an e-nose detection system (Varroa destructor changes its cuticular hydrocarbons to mimic new hosts) as they now evade bees. But see the research cited below.
Environmental scents, such as the exhaust from the 2-cycle engine of a mosquito fogger, or the diesel exhaust from an unexpected vehicle in the apiary, or the spoor of a bear, etc., would all be useful information.
Finally, an excellent article summarizing several years of research on volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds in beehive atmospheres is Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds in beehive atmospheres; it is Chapter 2 in in the book: Honey Bees: Estimating the Environmental Impact of Chemicals.
Currently (2020) no commercial vendor is offering a VOC sensor for beehives, but the DIY folks at HiveTool have made one available for use with their system: The HiveTool homepage.
To detect American Foulbrood
To detect Varroa
More on e-Nose sensor research
Honey bees can sense the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the hive, but not the level of oxygen, Seeley reported in a 1974 paper titled “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Regulation in Honey-Bee (Apis Mellifera) Colonies”. When not clustering, if the CO2 level rises above 1%, bees will fan to reduce it. A high level of CO2 in the hive during brood rearing or nectar processing might indicate insufficient ventilation.
In contrast, in the winter cluster, bees apparently induce hypoxia in the cluster to reduce its metabolic rate, and the induced metabolic rate correlates inversely with CO2 levels (see “Hypoxia-Controlled Winter Metabolism in Honeybees (Apis mellifera)”). Consequently, a CO2 sensor placed in the cluster might be informative regarding winter cluster conditions.
Currently, no vendor is providing carbon dioxide sensors for beehives.
Beehive ventilation is a very important, but almost totally unexplored, dimension of colony behavior and monitoring interest. For each of the three major colony activities (brood rearing, nectar processing, and winter clustering) there is an optimal hive environment (temperature and humidity). Bees attempt to create and maintain these environments in spite of external conditions and within the limitations of hive insulation and hive apertures.
The amount of energy bees expend (i.e., honey that bees consume) in overcoming sub-optimal in-hive conditions for each of these major activity has never been determined. It has been calculated, however that approximately half the nectar brought into the hive could be consumed in processing the remaining nectar into honey. See: Thermal Efficiency Extends Distance and Variety…
One has to wonder how much more energy bees expend in overcoming suboptimal hive designs. It appears that a beehive designed for the optimal performance each of major activity would minimize the effort required for fanning to ventilate the hive, and would minimize the energy required to heat or to cool the hive, thereby reducing bees’ effort and stress, and increasing their health and productivity. The air pressure sensors used on toy quadcopter drones to sense changes in altitude could possibly be used in beehives to monitor air motion.
It is hard for bees to detect Varroa mites. Varroa mites evade detection by adapting their scent to that of the colony, by having a shape that fits closely to a bee’s body, and by having a surface that mimics a bee’s. It is also hard for bees to dislodge mites from their bodies, when found. And mites reproduce inside capped brood cells, where they are out of sight.
Some bees are capable of detecting mites in capped brood cells. These Varroa sensitive hygienic (VSH) bees apparently detect these mites by smell.
Varroa mites and bees are different colors, but as it is dark inside a beehive that is of no use to bees. It may, however, be useful in developing a mite detection device.
A prototype Varroa detector based on interpreting images of bees entering a hive is discussed here.
Purple Hive Project
Australia is currently free of Varroa mites. Using artificial vision at the hive entrance, the Purple Hive project aims to monitor selected Australian hives for bees entering or exiting the hive with Varroa mites.
Free detection of varroa mites.
Monitor your bees’ health and detect parasites. All in your camera.
Find varroa, wingless bees, the queen and colony strength. Accurate, fast and easy to use.
Use your camera! Take photos of your bees on the comb. Analysing is done in 100 milliseconds by artificially intelligent vision software.
Vatorex – now available!
For beekeepers seeking more effective and eco-positive solutions, Vatorex ensures better control over varroa, less environmental impact, and greater insights into your hives.
Note: Hive scale, brood temperature sensor, and hive manager app are also available from Vatorex, along with their heat-based mite killing kit.
Beehive Monitoring / Slovakia. Available now!
https://beehivemonitoring.com/en/ has a heat-based Varroa killer.
https://beecombplex.com Still in the development stage, this mite killer spots mites on bees with artificial vision and then zaps them with a laser; without harming the bee.
VarroaCounter – now available!
App on phone counts mites on the miteboard using image recognition.
- Discover honey bee Drone Congregation Areas (DCA) with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) drones.
A remotely-piloted UAV (drone) that streams live video can be used to find honey bee drone congregation areas (DCA) by equipping it with either a live queen bee or a vial of virgin queen pheromone (QMP: Queen Mandibular Pheromone).
- The website Map My DCA http://mapmydca.com has complete instructions for finding DCAs with UAVs.
- Podcast with Map My DCA website owner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D29gp20cH7s
- A video of the DCA-finding process from New River Honey Bees is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0XXojwb76M
- Collect colony monitoring data from hives in areas without cell phone coverage, or hives that are widely dispersed, as for pollination.
To our knowledge, in 2020, no colony monitoring product or service uses drone technology to retrieve data.
- Locate and inventory hives equipped with RFID tags. May be especially useful for hives that are widely dispersed, as for pollination, or to locate hives suspected of being stolen.
To our knowledge, in 2020, no colony monitoring product or service uses drone technology to locate and inventory hives.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to know where the queen was before you even opened your hive? Or perhaps you would settle for locating the queen even after you opened the hive. As far as we can determine, no queen-finder or queen locator is available at this time (2020).
- The one exception is the BeeScanning app. However, it requires that you take four photos of each side of each frame, preferably using a jig to ensure image quality, a rather tedious process if you are not recording the images for other purposes. https://beescanning.com
- One possible device might be a real-time version of the beescanning app specifically adapted to finding the queen. It would work as the beekeeper slowly and steadily moved their phone camera over the frame, “showing” the bees to the camera.
- Another device might be the scanning wand used at airport security. If the hive had no metal except a metallic tag on the queen, the scanner could pick it up. Or, if the scanner could be adjusted to search for a specific material, other metals could be used in the hive.
- Possibly an RFID tag could be used to mark the queen. The trouble with small RFID tags is that the antenna in the scanner used to detect them needs to be very close to the tag, the smaller the tag, the closer to the tag the scanner must be.
- A fourth possibility is to use temperature. A fine-grained temperature grid in the brood box might be able to pick up temperature changes in the area where the queen is actively laying. Presumably the temperature where there is no brood would be lower than brood temperature, and the temperature in the area where the queen is laying would increase as the queen deposited eggs in the cells.
While we are waiting for the queen spotting app, the book QueenSpotting, by Hilary Kearney, has 50 increasingly difficult queen spotting images so you can practice your personal queen spotting skills.