Better Living Through Big Data

Tiny Technology Helps Save the Honey Bees

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

Australia’s lead scientific research agency joins forces with Intel to unravel a mystery that threatens global food security.

Imagine a world without honey bees. While that would be an environmental tragedy and a serious hit to honey lovers, what many people don’t realize is that it would also be a major threat to the world’s food supply.

Bees are responsible for much more than producing honey.

The United Nations estimates that of the 100 crop species responsible for providing 90 percent of food worldwide, 71 depend on bee pollination. Those foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Honey bees, however, are dying at an unprecedented rate — and no one is quite sure why. What will it take to save the honey bees?

bee keepers

To unravel the mystery surrounding this rapid decline, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) partnered with Intel to launch the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health (GIHH).

“In the US alone, honey bee hives are now declining by about 25 percent a year. There’s been a steady decline in hives since the 1940s but it’s getting worse,” said Professor Paulo de Souza, science leader at CSIRO.

more bees
Dr. Paulo de Souza examines a hive.

“Even wild bee species, particularly bumblebees, which are also responsible for many of the fruits and vegetables we eat, are in peril,” he said.

GIHH was founded to combat these troubling statistics. The project’s top priority? Unite research efforts globally by using a common technology platform.

To accomplish this, CSIRO and GIHH participants are taking Internet of Things (IoT) technology provided by Intel and applying it to living things, in this case, bees. The aim is to capture and analyze data, but this data is gathered from bees rather than machines or appliances.


Collapsing Colonies

The ultimate goal is to identify — and then solve — the problems causing the honey bees’ population decline.

One thing researchers know is that honey bees are afflicted by what’s known as colony collapse disorder.

“We’re not exactly sure which key factors, or what combination of factors, cause colony collapse disorder,” de Souza said. “But what we do know is that from one day to the next, a viable working hive could all of a sudden have no bees left in it, or they could all be found dead.”

While de Souza explained that researchers know what individual stressors affect bee health, it would be overwhelming for an individual group to research them all.

“It needs to be a global initiative, and we need to use technology and data to help find a solution,” he said. “And we have to do it before it’s too late.”

Honey bee project

The Intel Edison Solution

That’s precisely why GIHH is uniting researchers, beekeepers, farmers and private companies from around the world.

GIHH members receive bee micro-sensor kits, which include an Intel Edison board — a, customizable compute platform that’s just slightly larger than a postage stamp.

The bee micro-sensor kits are placed inside hives to monitor the bees’ activity via tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags that are placed on the bees’ backs.

“The RFID tags attached to the bees relay data to the Edison in each hive,” explained de Souza, who compared the sensors to an airplane’s flight recorder or black box. “They provide us with vital information about what happened to the bees before the hive collapsed.”

bee keepers

Some of that information is environmental, such as the temperature and humidity surrounding the hive. But the digital readers can also help researchers understand honey bee movement, behavior and responses to stressors like pesticides, water pollution, diet and other factors that affect bee health and pollination ability.

“A benefit of the Edison board is that scientists from around the world are able to add environmental sensors based on what they want to test, for example wind velocity, or even the weight of the hive,” de Souza explained.

”The scientists can determine the number of bees in a hive at any one time, and how much honey it contains.”


All About Data

After the data is gathered from the Edison boards, it is transmitted to the CSIRO’s cloud platform for analysis and modelling.

While de Souza said the researchers tried other platforms, Edison technology was an ideal fit for the project.

“It had the low power consumption benefit, which was crucial considering the remote locations some researchers would be using the kit,” he said. “Its small size, reliability, wireless support and programming flexibility were other major factors in its selection.”

CSIRO’s research initiative has been up and running for approximately 18 months.

“Data captured by the Edison and RFID tags help us better understand why honey bees are on the decline, and provide valuable information to beekeepers, primary producers, industry groups and governments on how best to protect the honey bee population,” de Souza said.

Securing Global Food Supply

The platform has also enabled the researchers to accelerate their work. To date, de Souza says 10,000 bees in Tasmania have been tagged.

“We’re currently putting together a paper on the discoveries we have made thus far,” he said, noting that the same technologies are being used to monitor bee activity in the Amazon.

A key part of the initiative is sharing findings with scientists globally. Researchers in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Costa Rica are already participating in the project, with others in Europe, the United States and many other countries to follow.

“What we’re creating is an environment where researchers around the world can collaborate using the same technology and the same data methodologies,” de Souza said. “Together we can help solve one of the biggest threats to global food security.”

Honey bees infographic


Nick Jacobs contributed this story. Additional reporting by Stephanie L. Ryan.

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