Golden Hills now maintains about 90 honeybee colonies for honey production and small-scale crop pollination. Since our grant proposal was submitted in 2011, we have expanded from 19 hives and entered the pollination business. Hives are spread over several locations including Coloma, Cross Plains, New Berlin, Mineral Point and Watertown, WI. Golden Hills specializes in producing high quality, artisanal honeys. We are on track to meet our goal of 150 hives for honey production in 2015.
Before our SARE project began we were already implementing several simple sustainable practices like using all renewable products in our hives, minimizing or eliminating the use of external inputs like plastic parts or unnecessary medications.
Our primary goals were:
1. Establish that data on hive weight has decision-making power for determining when to visit apiaries and how much equipment will be needed.
2. Determining a minimum number (less that 100%) of hives that must be monitored to provide apiary-wide information for decision-makers.
3. Developing a simple and cost-effective system for other beekeepers to collect this data. A good product will be one that pays for itself through efficiency gains (labor and fuel savings) within one year.
Our first step was to develop the hardware and software that would form the backbone of our research and data collection efforts. The products we needed were not commercially available so we were forced to create our weighing and transmitting system from scratch. However, this allowed us to ultimately save money and streamline processes because we were able to avoid unnecessary features and create a streamline and efficient process.
Simultaneously we began simple data collection using traditional, manual scales until our hardware was developed. This allowed us to collect two years of data even though the hardware development took a full year of the project.
In 2013 we applied the hardware and software we developed collected weight measurements from several hives in two locations at 12 hour intervals (8:00am and 8:00pm). We then compared this data with our observations in our weekly hive inspections.
The final stage of the project was to see if we could use the weight measurement we collected to predict what type of management would be needed when we visited the apiary. This should reveal 1) whether the beekeeper needs to take the time to visit the site and 2) what equipment he should anticipate needing once there.
Anthony K. developed the hardware and software and was extremely patient and helpful with constantly designing and redesigning something that would fit our needs.
We achieved several important results. First, we developed a system that can record hive weights accurately and with any frequency desired. It can then broadcast this information wirelessly so it can be retrieved from any internet capable device. The system we developed is a significant improvement over the closest competitor, which costs $4,000 to monitor four hives and doesn’t have the ability to upload the data to the internet. Our system would currently cost about $350 to set up and monitor one hive but up to 9 additional hives can then be monitored at the same location for an additional $75 per hive. This would allow ten hives to be monitored in one location for a one-time cost of $1025, plus the monthly charge for a wireless hotspot, approximately $28. Further improvements may make the design more rugged and continue to reduce the cost of the base unit. The development of this system took much longer than anticipated but we are very pleased with the results.
We compared the weight data we collected to our observations in our weekly hive inspections. These were standard colony inspections in which we assessed things like whether the bees were bringing in surplus honey or were in need of supplemental feed. We also noted whether the queens were healthy, whether the bees were attempting to replace her, or whether the colony had divided (swarmed). Some of the measurements were extremely useful for decision making even before we began analyzing them in depth. For example, when hives had increased in weight by about forty five pounds, the bees needed another box to store surplus honey. This was an extremely consistent and reliable signal. In another case, the hive weight went from 289 pounds to 0.5 pounds during a twelve hour interval. While we originally through we had discovered a problem with our equipment, we found that the hive had been overturned by a bear instead. Because we received this information very quickly we were able to save the colony.
Other phenomena are going to require more detailed statistical analysis but our preliminary data suggests we may be able to identify other major colony events including the death of a queen bee and the departure of a swarm. Both of these are undesirable from a beekeeper’s perspective because they will dramatically reduce the productivity of the colony that season. We had originally hoped that we could identify a pattern that would indicate that a swarm was about to leave, however, this doesn’t seem to follow a consistent pattern in our data.
We identified several limitations to our system as well. We are not able to determine much information about the status of brand new hives on brand new equipment. When the bees are producing honeycomb or the hive is receiving supplemental feed from the beekeeper, the weight relationships break down. However, with an established hive under normal conditions, the information was very valuable.
The research undertaken for this grant showed us that we can apply new technologies to improve productivity in apiculture, an industry that has been a significant laggard and has largely been passed over by advances in other fields, such as precision ag. Many things in beekeeping go unrecorded and decisions are made based on “gut” feeling, rather than data. Our project has demonstrated that a change of course is both valuable and attainable. Beyond the direct applications from our specific technology, we truly hope that our success encourages other beekeepers to pursue similar lines and bring addition technology, better record keeping and more informed decision making to the field.
Data can be collected cheaply and easily using remote technology. This same data can then be sent to the beekeeper reliably and at minimal cost. We have been able to use this information to slightly reduce the number of trips we make to each apiary. More importantly, we were better able to plan what equipment we would need for each visit. This saves time and money and reduces the negative environmental impacts of unnecessary driving, especially pulling trailers with extra equipment. We were able to increase out production per colony by quickly pinpointing where the bees were bringing in nectar and providing more storage space. With honey prices at current elevated levels, it doesn’t take much yield gain to justify a system like we are developing. Nevertheless, we expect the main benefit to continue to be savings rather than increased yield.
The primary disadvantage to a system like this is the up-front cost to initially place the equipment. This will likely decline as we continue to improve our design and other beekeepers make changes of their own. However, even these relatively minimal costs are likely to detrimentally affect adoption in a highly technology averse field.
While not truly a “disadvantage” of the system, many will be disappointed that we have not come up with a “formula” for beekeeping. The data collected is just that – data. At least at this point, it still requires substantial beekeeping knowledge to interpret it profitably. There is no magic equation that allows us to say, “When weight increases/decreases by x, y is happening in the colony and should be addressed by doing z.”
The main push to disseminate information about the project will begin only this spring, after the grant is completed since we used the full duration to collect and analyze data before we had anything useful to share, other than the concept with interested beekeepers. However, this spring will see several presentations about our findings at various beekeeping organization meetings. We will share our results at several of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association (WHPA) district meetings in February and March. However, all dates are still tentative except for the southern district, of which I am the chair. The southern district meeting will be held at Milton Elementary School in Milton, WI on March 1. Attendance is expected to be around 50. We are currently planning to present at three to four additional meetings with attendances projected to be between 30 and 70. These activities are advertised in The Badger Bee, the WHPA’s monthly publication.
We are currently preparing an article for the American Bee Journal, the nation’s largest beekeeping monthly. However, we will not submit this article until at least May/June of 2014 because we need additional data on the spring build-up of overwintered colonies.
We maintain a demonstration hive at Dadant & Sons, Inc., a beekeeping supply company in Watertown, WI. This allows beekeepers from all over Wisconsin and northern Illinois to see the equipment in action if they express interest. We estimate we have reached about 40 beekeepers in this way. We have also received valuable feedback and ideas from beekeepers in this venue.