Honeybee research takes flight at GVSU


Grand Valley State University professors and students are developing an app to measure beehive growth. Courtesy Thinkstockphoto.com

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) One-third of the food people consume is produced through the pollination efforts of honeybees, which is why beekeepers, farmers and scientists have grave concerns about the rapid bee population decline.

“Some of the brightest scientists in the country are working on this problem because it’s a really important problem,” said Jonathan Engelsma, computer science professor at Grand Valley State University. “There is a lot of food that we enjoy and have in our regular diet that depends on the domestic honeybee. We are talking foods like apples, almonds, melons and pickles. The list goes on.”

Michigan has a key stake in the health of honeybees, being the second largest agriculture producer in the country.

“My family is in the apple industry and they have to have commercial beekeepers bring in honeybees every spring. The blueberry growers also depend on it,” Engelsma said. “There are not enough native pollinators, so people who raise these types of crops depend on commercial beekeepers to bring in lots of honeybee colonies in order to get the pollination set they need. There are a number of commercial beekeepers here in the state of Michigan.”

Engelsma and Anne Marie Fauvel, liberal studies professor at GVSU, are working with student teams at the university to help with the study of honeybees by developing a web application to connect beekeepers with honeybee researchers across the country.

Both Engelsma and Fauvel are beekeepers who discovered their common interest in honeybees three years ago and decided to turn it into a learning opportunity for their students.

Anne Marie had this idea of trying to determine the weight of a hive when it’s out in the field without having to go out there with a clipboard and old-fashioned farm scale,” Engelsma said. “She, John Ferris, a colleague in engineering, and myself got together one day and we defined a couple of capstone projects for our seniors in the engineering and computer science programs.”

In 2012 students embarked on the project. Engineering students were tasked with building the hardware, and computer science students developed the software needed to receive that data.

The device the engineering students developed takes weight, temperature and humidity readings at regular intervals and then wirelessly transmits them to the network, where the beekeepers and researchers can use it to make informed decisions.

In 2013, Fauvel became acquainted with members of Bee Informed, an organization made up of scientists studying the decline of honeybees.

The group collects and analyzes data from beekeepers.

Bee Informed was very interested in the software GVSU was developing and began a partnership with the university in 2013. The organization provided the project a small grant to continue to work on the web application.

“We are now focused on the software system,” Engelsma said. “The software receives all this data and then aggregates it in a database and makes it available to both beekeepers and researchers via a web app.

“Our goal is to eventually establish a nationwide network of these devices, which are out in the field sending data up to our database.”

Engelsma said the team is wrapping up the first phase of development and will launch a pilot project this summer.

GVSU’s apiary will be one of the pilot participants, along with beekeepers and beekeeping clubs recruited by Bee Informed. Engelsma said he would also be participating with his hives.

“We are hoping it will be a nationwide selection,” he said.

He hopes the pilot project will help garner additional funding for phase two, which would allow for additional participants, an increased network and added features.

Engelsma said the data being collected would be useful to both beekeepers and researchers.

“If you are a beekeeper, you can purchase one of these scales, deploy it in your apiary and get this data,” he said. “At frequent intervals it will sample the weight, temperature and the humidity at the site of the hive and will transmit that data to the network. Over time a beekeeper can go pull up a website and see how that colony is faring.”

Engelsma said the weight of the hive is valuable information for beekeepers.

“For example, we’d be expecting the weight of the hive to be increasing (right now) because there’s lots of forage,” he said. “Bees are gathering nectar and pollen and expanding their brood nest. If the weight is not going up, then that says something is wrong. If it is going up, we need to give the bees extra room at some point. We put extra boxes on the hive.”

He also said the device would alert beekeepers if a bear comes along and knocks the boxes over so they can service it quickly.

In the longer term, the web application can provide a great benefit to scientists studying honeybees.

“One of the things scientists are doing more and more these days — due to the pervasiveness of digital technology — is they are solving hard problems by using large data sets,” he said. “If we monitor hives over a number of years and we gather data at this resolution, we have information that really hasn’t been available to the scientific community before. They can look at trends and correlations, and really try to get a bigger aggregate understanding of what is happening to bee populations.”

Scientists are not sure why the honeybee population is declining so drastically, but they are looking at a few key factors.

The varroa mite is a parasite that makes its home in honeybee hives and transmits viruses to the bees. Other factors include the use of pesticides and how common agriculture practices might be impacting foraging opportunities necessary for hive survival.

“As the size of farms has scaled up the practices have changed, and that has reduced overall the amount of forage around the country for honeybees, and that is a problem,” he said.

For example, there is more corn being planted today and less alfalfa, which is a major shift. Additionally, the alfalfa being planted is often cut before it blooms.

The data that is being collected by Bee Informed and others is being used to help inform best practices to help beekeepers keep their hives flourishing.

The pilot program this summer will help Engelsma and Fauvel refine the web application and make improvements. They hope to make the product out-of-the-box ready.

“When you are working with technology like this it’s hard to get it perfect the first time,” Engelsma said. “We plan to work in an iterative fashion where we will turn a small number of users loose initially, watch them carefully, get a lot of feedback from them, and then we will be refining the system. Eventually we want this to be incredibly easy for anybody to use.”

In addition to its benefits to the beekeeping community, honeybee researchers and farmers, Engelsma also pointed out it has been a great benefit for GVSU students to be part of a multidisciplinary project with a real-life purpose.

“We don’t just teach students how to program computers, we like them to understand how to use software to address real-world problems,” he said. “They put on their bee suits and went out to the field, helped deploy the scale and made sure it was communicating over the network.”

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