More and more people are citing a sobering prediction Einstein once made in a French apiculture magazine: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would have only four years left to live.” (Abeilles et Fleurs, June 1965).
While the question of whether that’s actually true is a matter of some debate, virtually everyone agrees that the current situation is definitely serious. Bees are a crucial link in the food chain, after all – you know, the one in which we humans are down toward the end. Pesticides, monoculture growing operations that provide poor nutrition to bees, and diseases caused by imported parasites (the Asian Varroa mite in particular) have caused the global honeybee population to decline by a full third in recent years.
This trend is expected to continue. Even worse, countless honeybees simply starve over the winter due to a lack of supplementary nutrition. All of this is already having dire effects on agricultural yield.
Indeed, up to three-fourths of our own food supply depends on the pollination bees provide – which corresponds to several hundred billion dollars in macroeconomic production. Ensuring the survival of these tireless workers is thus beekeepers’ primary concern; honey is just a welcome byproduct. Due to the many facets in play, it’s highly unlikely that a universal solution to the problem of colony collapse disorder will be found. That’s not stopping a considerable number of people from working to at least limit the damage, though.
Saving bees instead of rolling strikes
Andreas Nickel, for example – who spends his days at SAP working as an ERP program manager – devotes much of his free time to mitigating bee starvation. After moving to the country with his wife, he was actually only looking for a hobby that would make him part of his local village community without forcing him to raise rabbits or join a bowling league.
Having opted to become a recreational beekeeper, Nickel now has a hive in his own front yard. As his hobby gradually grew into a passion, his rudimentary knowledge of the field widened into the profound realization that honeybees can no longer survive in Europe and North America without human assistance. Since society at large has an interest in making sure they do live on, Nickel promptly began using his technical expertise to build a beehive scale.
This may seem fairly unspectacular at first; such scales already existed beforehand, of course. Among other functions, they indicate how much nectar the bees have collected and whether the beekeeper needs to take action to ensure that the hive has enough food stored for the colder half of the year. Most hobby beekeepers would find it difficult to afford a monitoring system around a thousand dollars, however, as would commercial operations that often have large numbers of hives – including in locations abroad.
This is why Nickel built a cost-effective model that can determine the weight of distant or distributed hives and issue a warning to his cell phone or computer when it detects significant anomalies. In most cases, the food supply is running low, a hive has tipped over, the surrounding area is unsuitable for honey production, or the bees have simply moved on.
The promise of the “Io-Bee”
Meanwhile, connecting beekeeping operations via The Internet of Things (IoT) would open up even more possibilities than just increasing yield or maintaining hives. Beekeepers could collect data on temperature and humidity in and around hives, for example. The ability to measure the effect of light and noise is another planned feature, one that would detect possible disruptions in bees’ natural habitat all across Germany.
This is a source of motivation for many scientific institutes, as University of Würzburg bee researcher Dr. Jürgen Tautzt’s interest in Andreas’s invention illustrates. Since beehives are obviously much more prevalent than weather stations, Deutscher Wetterdienst (Germany’s weather service) may even be able to utilize the localized data a system like this could generate. At the same time, exchanging data with such institutions could provide beekeepers with key insights into how they might improve their practices. As a result, this type of IoT activity presents an array of potential uses to help bees survive – and once again thrive – around the world.
For more examples of how new technology can help solve social and environmental problems, see Making Cities Safer And Smarter With Innovative Technology.