Exclusive Interview: Keeping Bees Safe and Sound

Keeping Bees Safe and Sound

A new Mobile IoT solution helps The Bee Corp detect disease, fight theft and protect hives


Ellie Symes, CEO, The Bee Corp

ellie-symes-website-interviewPivotal to the pollination of crops and wild flowers, beehives are valuable assets for both human beings and the planet as a whole. With hives vulnerable to disease and theft, beekeepers are seeking straightforward ways to remotely monitor their precious charges.

New low power wide area connectivity could provide the answer: The Bee Corp, which provides specialist analytics services for apiaries, is deploying a solution developed by NimbeLink. The NimbeLink Asset Tracking Solution uses cellular LTE-M connectivity to report hive location, motion and temperature data back to Bee Corp analytics platform. “The temperature indicates whether the queen is alive, which is very important in honey production,” says Ellie Symes, CEO, The Bee Corp. “If the queen dies, they stop foraging, then the hive can collapse very quickly.”

Branded Queens Guard, the system can be configured to measure the temperature once an hour and relay the aggregated data back to the beekeeper once a day. Similarly, the NimbeLink Asset Tracking Solution also has an accelerometer, which can detect if the hive is moved and trigger the device to report location data collected via GPS back to the beekeeper. “The beekeepers have the modules hidden in the hives,” explains Ellie Symes. “As they normally operate at night, the thieves don’t want to open the hive and look for the module.”

Equipped with the low power cellular connectivity LTE-M, Queens Guard can run for long periods on batteries. “It is ideal to have out in the field,” says Ven Dixit of NimbeLink. “3G and 2G technologies are heavier power consumers, so you would have less time out in the field. Wi-Fi is not feasible because of its range and some of the hives are in remote areas. Security is also intrinsic in a cellular solution.” NimbeLink says its asset tracking device has a battery life of between five and seven years, and dimensions of 4” x 4”, making it compact enough to embed in a hive. NimbeLink plans to reduce the size of the module further, potentially making it even harder for thieves to find and remove. “We have a prototype solution that is a little bit bigger than a cigarette lighter,” says Ven Dixit.

Prior to switching to LTE-M connectivity early in 2018, The Bee Corp was using a mesh network to monitor hives. “We had to set up separate gateways, but they were expensive and they had to run off solar power,” says Ellie Symes. “It was a very complicated system. We chose the NimbeLink solution because the battery life is definitely key: Some beekeepers would have to travel long distances to replace the battery.” The Bee Corp tested the new solution for about two months in its research apiary to see how the sensor handled different conditions in the beehive. At the Innovation City at GSMA MWC18 Los Angeles in September, The Bee Corp and NimbeLink demonstrated the solution working in a hive with approximately 10,000 bees sealed in an observation tank.


In pursuit of commercial scale

Based in Indiana, the Bee Corp deploys Queens Guard in its own apiaries and sells it on to other beekeepers. The new LTE-M-based solution is now monitoring several hundred hives operated by small beekeepers across the U.S. To date, 11% of these deployments have had a Queens Guard alert enabling the keeper to save the hive (worth approximately $600, plus the labour costs of installing a new hive), according to Ellie Symes. Each of the two solutions (location and temperature) costs beekeepers $70 a year per hive, with the price of the hardware baked into this subscription fee. The Bee Corp is now talking to partners about how to roll out the solution to beekeepers overseas.

In the US, the company has secured a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which was matched by the State of Indiana, to develop the Queens Guard system further so it can be used on a large scale by major commercial beekeepers. Ellie Symes says the next step is to develop a “minimum viable product” that will be cost-effective for large-scale deployments. “We are working with a small group of growers to test this year, so we could be rolling out in the next growing season – mid 2019,” she adds. “The large commercial beekeepers, which have between 500 and 100,000 hives, are mostly focused on pollination (rather than honey production), which has added a little more complexity. Those are the guys impacting the food production.” As things stand, most of the major commercial beekeepers still rely on manual bookkeeping to monitor the status of their hives. In fact, beekeeping remains labour intensive, partly because monitoring the health of bees without technology is a logistical challenge, requiring staff to inspect individual hives.


Tracking hive health on a large scale

In the US, honeybees are responsible for pollinating 90 different types of crops, such as almonds, cotton, berries, and alfalfa (feed for cattle), encompassing one third of the food eaten in the country. Growers rent beehives from beekeepers to ensure pollination. About a decade ago, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder resulted in a calamitous fall in honeybee populations. In this case, large numbers of worker bees disappeared, leaving behind unsustainable hives. Formed partly as a response to that disaster, The Bee Corp has a mission to save and preserve honeybees. Ellie Symes says it is focused on connecting more hives and thereby collecting more data on beehives and bee health.

Having determined that the strength of the hive is important for effective pollination, “researchers want to track hive health on a large scale,” the CEO adds. “And chemical companies are interested in whether pesticides are impacting the bees. The way you do that is by creating products that help the beekeepers manage the bees.” To that end, The Bee Corp is working on a solution to enable beekeepers and growers to determine the size of the hive. This is very important for crop pollination, because a hive needs to be large enough to be effective at pollination. However, Ellie Symes stresses the need to keep the sensors simple and cost-effective: “We need to make it affordable for beekeepers.”

More broadly, NimbeLink says its LTE-M-based asset tracking solutions have a wide range of potential applications across many different industry sectors, including monitoring for livestock, resource and equipment, as well as a variety of applications in supply chain and logistics. In each case, sensors measuring motion, humidity or temperature are combined with location-tracking technologies, such as GPS and Wi-Fi sniffing, and are then connected to a data analytics system using LTE-M. “We have brought it all together in a very small package and made it easy to use,” says Ven Dixit. “That is not a small feat.”