Other Components of a Colony Monitoring System
It is a long distance, technologically speaking, from the sensors in a beehive to the display of the sensor data on the screen of the beekeeper’s electronic device, and it makes no difference whether the beekeeper is in the apiary or on the other side of the planet. Once the data has been sensed, it must be transmitted, stored, analyzed, and finally, displayed. And all these activities require electrical power.
When selecting a colony monitoring system, beekeepers should take care that the methods for collecting and delivering colony information are suitable for their specific circumstances.
Currently available (2019) colony monitoring systems use a variety of communications technologies:
- Wi-Fi to a home network
- NFC or Bluetooth to a cell phone or cellular gateway
- Cellular data link to the internet, also called IoT & M2M
- Satellite communications to the internet
And combinations of these, such as Bluetooth from several hives to a cellular data link to the internet. Each of these has an initial cost and a monthly subscription cost.
- Direct connection
In this arrangement, the sensors are wired directly to the beekeeper’s computer using a USB connection. The computer must be near the hive as the longest USB cord one can purchase is 15 ft. (5 meters). This option is only mentioned for completeness; most likely it is of use mainly to researchers and others monitoring indoor observation hives.
- NFC and Bluetooth
NFC and Bluetooth products contain a tiny computer chip with radios and software that makes it easy to communicate. Various levels of Bluetooth have different power-range tradeoffs. Small short-range sensors may run off tiny coin-cell batteries for months. Colony monitoring systems that use only NFC or Bluetooth typically expect beekeepers to collect data from them with their cell phone when they are in the apiary. Increasingly, however, vendors of these systems are also offering an optional cellular gateway that will automatically collect data from one or more hives or sensors and transmit it to the internet.
Data may also be transmitted to the beekeeper’s computer or router by Wi-Fi. The range of many home Wi-Fi systems is limited to about 35 meters (100 feet) or so, depending on the intervening objects. This range can be extended with more powerful transmitters and with repeater nodes.
- Cellular data service
Cellular data service offers coverage within a range of 15-25 kilometers (10-15 miles) from the nearest cell tower site. Almost all backyard beekeepers and most sideline beekeepers will locate their apiaries within cell tower range, so monitoring systems offering this communications service will be of use to most. Commercial beekeepers doing pollination or honey production may site their apiaries beyond the nearest cell tower. The technical terms for this service are: IoT for Internet of Things, and M2M for Machine to Machine.
- Satellite data link
If one’s hives are beyond the reach of a cellular data service, then a satellite data link must be used, if the colonies are to be monitored remotely.
Once transmitted, colony monitoring data is put into storage. These days, most data is stored “in the cloud” meaning stored in vast warehouses full of computers located somewhere in the world where land and electricity are cheap. Your data will be safe there ‘forever’ although, in the world of computers, forever may not be all that long. For this reason, it is good idea to make your own copy of the data, and many vendors provide a way for you to do this. Also, it is a good reason to insist that your vendor comply with a data exchange standard such as BeeXML – once a standard has been defined.
Some of the collected data can be displayed with little further analysis. Weights and temperatures, for example, can be graphed over time and displayed on charts for the beekeeper to interpret.
For example, from a graph of hive weight, the beekeeper can determine when the nectar flow starts and ends, and when it is time to add supers or harvest honey. From a rapid change in weight, the beekeeper can tell that a colony is robbing or being robbed, or that a swarm has departed.
During a nectar flow, comparing the daily weight gains of one’s colonies to each other will provide information for further analysis, such as determining and resolving the cause of unproductive colonies and deciding which colonies should be used to breed new queens.
Also, for example, a change of temperature in the brood box from nearly the same as external temperatures to a steady 34C (94F) means that bees have started raising brood. A gradual rise in temperature over a few hours to 34C (94F) in the brood box, but away from the brood, means the bees are warming up, perhaps to swarm. A gradual warmup followed by an abrupt drop in weight will leave no doubt.
On the other hand, audio data gathered at the hive entrance to monitor landing board activity will require analysis and interpretation before it is displayed for the beekeeper. The samples of audio data will be analyzed to determine the audio frequencies, or pitch, of the sounds made by the bees, and these will, in turn, be broken down into, for example, flight noise and fanning noise. The volume of the flight noise can be graphed and presented to the beekeeper, who can then see at what time bees depart in the morning and return in the evening, and, by the volume of the noise, estimate their foraging efforts during the day.
As with weights and temperatures, the value of the flight information comes not with seeing what is happening on any given day, although that may be interesting in itself, but when the data from one day is compared to other days to see a seasonal pattern, or when the data from one hive is compared to other hives in the apiary, or when one apiary is compared to another, or when one year is compared to another.
More-complex analysis, perhaps based on placing multiple sensors in a hive, is also possible. For example, the Flying Carpet animation, created by animating a heat map defined by nine Broodminder temperature sensors placed under the inner cover of a hive, can be viewed here. This Flying Carpet shows the variation in temperature in this hive over the course of a calendar year. There is so much information in the animation that repeated viewing is required to fully grasp the changes.
Alerts are a special kind of analysis and display. Alerts are used for events which should be reported immediately. For example, if a hive tips over, it might be noted with a motion sensor (an accelerometer), a hive scale, or a GPS. In any case, the beekeeper should be notified as soon as possible, and that’s what an Alert does. Typically, it sends a text message to the beekeeper identifying the hive and the type of Alert.
b) Future Data Analysis
As the price of sensor systems falls and vendors’ capabilities increase, it seems reasonable to expect that future colony monitoring systems will become more prescriptive. That is, rather than simply reporting what data they detect, the systems will interpret the meaning of the data and recommend actions for the beekeeper to take. This capability will be enhanced when data from multiple honey bee colonies is collected and analyzed for outcomes.
By pooling and sharing colony data, beekeepers can develop local best practices for honey production and colony health. Furthermore, bee researchers can make use of the data, especially if it is captured with their needs in mind. Finally, other researchers, such as climate change researchers can use the data.
For example, a beekeeping climate scientist at NASA has found that in the Washington DC area, spring now comes about three weeks earlier than it did 40 years ago.
This HoneyBeeNet Web site provides a central location for the collection and sharing of nectar flow records by volunteers and provides comparisons with satellite data. We hope to better understand how climate and land use/land cover changes affect the nectar flows. We have recently forged a alliance with the National Phenology Network (NPN), who currently have several efforts underway aimed at understanding the timing of plant and animal life cycle events (phenology). With their assistance we hope our beekeepers and others can also track the phenology of plant species that are important to honeybees.
Another organization that collects and shares data from beekeepers is the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP). The BIP collects data by surveying beekeepers and by using sentinel apiaries, whose beekeepers send BIP reports, samples, and hive scale data.
The Bee Informed Partnership is dedicated to working with beekeepers to better understand which management practices work best.
Everyone can review BIP reports and examine the data set interactively here.
Hive scale data shared by BIP Sentinel Apiary participants can be viewed here.
Participants may provide hive scale data using scales from any of several vendors; the following vendors have been designated Bee Informed Ready™ meaning that they have been validated by BIP and are able to integrate with BIP. BIP has evaluated these scales and listed their pros and cons on its website.
A third organization that shares its users’ data is Broodminder. Broodminder users can opt to share their data with others. The Broodminder user map is here.
Broodminder has the explicit policy of making its data public for use by beekeepers, bee researchers, data scientists, and others. Contact Broodminder for access to their database.
HiveTracks, a provider of colony management software, offers limited data sharing. First, it enables beekeepers to share their data with others in a defined group. Next, HiveTracks will “…provide anonymized data to select researchers to address questions important to honey bee health” Finally, they are working, with others, to identify and define which data is most important for colony management and develop a standard for data exchange.
Researchers are just beginning to think about what data to collect and how to collect it in order to have sufficient data of the type and quality necessary to apply Data Analytics techniques to apiary management; an overview is here.
And a web search using “Bee Culture Cazier” will yield a half-dozen or more articles on the topic in Bee Culture, by Joseph Cazier.
BeeXML is a standard in the early stages of development. Once the standard has been defined, it will become much easier for individuals and groups using different colony monitoring systems to exchange data about bees and beekeeping. This, in turn, will allow data from many sources to be aggregated, and as the saying goes “Data is the new oil.” We may expect to see new and useful scientific discoveries made when data from beekeepers, science projects, weather and crop data, etc., are aggregated such that data scientists can make use of it. The BeeXML website is here.
Colony monitoring systems typically rely on batteries. Some systems are designed specifically to minimize power consumption, others, not so much. In any case the batteries will need to be replaced periodically, or to be recharged, perhaps with a second battery or another portable power supply, a solar collector, or with some other energy harvesting method.
1. Solar Rechargers
Beekeepers often use solar power to maintain the charge in the batteries on their bear fences. Some colony monitoring systems also offer a solar recharging option. As solar cells continue to drop in price, solar recharging becomes more financially feasible, enabling the beekeeper to forego frequent battery changes.
Vendors/Organizations offering Solar Rechargers
BuzzTech, New Zealand
Modusense, New Zealand
As yet, no one appears to offer a hive cover with solar cells especially designed to recharge batteries together with a battery pack that is easily swappable between the recharging unit and the sensor system. (These should not be confused with solar powered hive ventilators, which, in my opinion, should not be used without a means of matching the ventilation provided to the bees’ needs.)
2. Someday Maybe: Honey power
One intriguing alternative to solar power for battery recharging is micro-fuel cells powered by honey. These glucose biofuel cells are still research projects, driven by the need for powered sensors within the human body. When developed, they would be worth having in a bee-yard as solar cells reveal the presence of valuable electronics, while honey-powered fuel cells could be hidden within one’s hives. To quote one recent article:
Glucose is an ideal fuel for fuel cells because it is abundant in nature, renewable, non-toxic and easy to produce.
- An alkaline direct oxidation glucose fuel cell…
- A Glucose Fuel Cell for Implantable Brain–Machine Interfaces
- Overview of Emerging Energy Technologies…
For more honey power information, search on the term “glucose biofuel cells”