Installing the guts of a computer into a beehive has its challenges.
On a makeshift workbench tucked into the far right corner of Wynn Geary’s backyard, a tangle of wires, computer chips, sensors and keyboards jockey for space. Next to the mess is a foot-and-a-half tall wooden box (in beekeeper speak, a ‘super’) that will, if all goes according to plan, neatly house the technology. The ‘smart hive’ will then stack onto one of Geary’s beehives, collecting and sending out a sophisticated stream of field data. That is, if it works.
“For a little while there, I was saying we were going to have the most advanced smart beehive in the world, which I still don’t think is untrue, but at least at a hobbyist level we will,” says Geary, an 18-year old who lives with his parents on the border of Philadelphia’s Manayunk and Roxborough neighborhoods.
“I don’t know what research universities are doing, but we are going to have a pretty intense set up here.”
Research universities are doing similar projects. In fact, everyone from the USDA to Greenpeace to Monsanto are paying attention to threats facing honeybees.
The insects have been dying off in startling numbers over the past decade. In some years, 60 percent of the hives in Pennsylvania have failed. Some of these massive die-offs are blamed on colony collapse disorder, a little understood phenomenon that may be due to parasites or pesticides. There’s also other stressors on bees, including a lack of plant diversity.
Dead bees, of course, can’t pollinate crops, including the nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables that rely on them. This is placing huge economic uncertainty on the shoulders of farmers both large and small, who often keep or rent huge quantities of bees.
Backyard and rooftop enthusiasts are also under strain.
“We’ve really struggled, and a lot of hobbyist beekeepers are really struggling,” says Geary. “Last winter was our worst winter yet. We had one hive survive of the four that we had last summer.”
The loss of tens of thousands of his bees gave Geary, a recent graduate from the Science Leadership Academy magnet school, the idea to install a variety of monitors in the hive to see if he could pinpoint the cause.
“I went into the project being like, ‘I want to solve colony collapse disorder,’ which is kind of funny coming from a kid my age. But the project has morphed a little bit, especially as I’ve talked to Max. It’s like, lets go in there, put these sensors in, and see if we learn something new.”
The backyard setup
Geary is partnering with Max Lawrence, a 40-year-old artist who often incorporates technology into his work. The two met at the Department of Making + Doing, a maker-space in West Philly.
Lawrence, an intense, bear of a man who would view that description as a compliment, is responsible for the mess atop the backyard workbench. It isn’t clear if the thing is going to be operational anytime soon.
“I’m not really sure, man? It could be like 20 minutes. It could be four hours. It could potentially be next week…you know, I got limits,” he says.
There’s a bit of a crunch here because Geary leaves for college at the Rhode Island School of Design (where Lawrence also went) in a few weeks.
The goal is for him to be able to monitor his bees from his dorm room–not just be able to watch a live stream over the internet, but actually track the smallest details of their lives.
In addition to an infrared camera, they are installing sensors to track methane, alcohol, carbon monoxide, temperature, humidity and noise levels inside the smart hive, as well as certain readings from outside. In the future, they hope to add dust sensors that could pinpoint various types of pollen carried in by the bees.
Unlike research universities and government agencies, however, the budget here is, well, pretty budget. Geary and Lawrence are trying to build the smart hive on less than $500, the size of the grant awarded by Geary’s high school.
“Everybody makes it sound so simple: oh yeah, just put it on the internet,” jokes Lawrence. “Trying to get a datafeed and video to stream realtime, out by a beehive? The Baby Cam, I keep going back to…how did they make it work? Should I just buy an iPhone and shove the iPhone in the beehive? Yeah, now looking back, probably should have.”
Secret life of bees
While Max tinkers with a wonky infrared lens, Geary throws on a bee suit and pulls the veil down over his Buddy Holly glasses. He uses a stainless steel canister to shoot puffs of smoke at the bees, calming them down before he cracks open the hive.
It’s a technique, like many other beekeeping methods, that hasn’t changed much over the years. Even the chest of drawers-like shape of man-made hives has been around since the 1850s, when a pastor from Philadelphia named L.L. Langstroth discovered it was the best way to harvest honey.
“It is kind of really cool to be working on an innovative project in the same city where modern day beekeeping started,” says Geary.
Inside the hive, female worker bees are going about their business as they have for millions of years, each carrying out a task to keep the hive up and running.
“You have a lot of respect for what the bees are doing in here, and how organized everything is.”
That organization makes it a good target for data collection. Since bees tend to follow patterns, it will be easy, in theory, to see when those activities change. There’s also another well-known aspect of life inside the hive they want to monitor: the waggle dance.
“The waggle dance is a semi-circular dance, with a little zig zag through the middle,” says Geary. “The direction that the bees are pointing tells the other bees which direction a good amount of flowers is, and the number of waggles–or the number of zig-zags–tells the bees how far. So this magic communicational dance that these bees do let all of the other bees know where the flowers are.”
Geary and Lawrence hope to use image recognition software, like Facebook uses, to digitally track the waggle dance. They could then turn that data into an interactive map detailing where the pollinators are foraging at any given time.
It’s the perfect marriage of bees and technology, at least in Lawrence’s head.
“To be able to have that stream of data–to be able to reintroduce and recontextualize–it is a paint brush on some Bob Ross-like happy bee accident,” he says. “You know, it is like, throw it together and see what sticks, and if it doesn’t stick, don’t be so occupied with what you expect out of it, cause that is bad science.”
After nine months of labor, the basic functions of the smart hive are now up and running, including the live stream. The bees shimmy across the screen in a frantic and hypotonic display, unaware of the camera lens inches from their honeycomb.
Most of the sensors are working, too, and they plan on making all of the data publicly available on their website, manayunkfarm.org.
“It is only going to make us in more awe of the bee,” say Geary. “It is only going to make us more fascinated about what the bees are doing.”