High technology enters bee hives – project “Maja” (scientific blog)

Wojciech Sojka collecting the reward in Munich. Photo by M. Nosek

Photo by W. Sojka

Wojciech Sojka, a third-year student of Electronics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering runs a very interesting project within the framework of the Student Special Interest Group of “Electronic Engineers”. As he says, it is about introducing electronics to bee-keeping. Sounds interesting and innovatory? Definitely yes! The idea of the AGH UST student consists in building a wireless control-measurement platform which will help bee-keepers to collect more honey.


Wojciech Sojka’s idea is based on a thorough analysis with the use of electronic devices of what happens in an apiary, for example, the changes of weight, humidity, temperature, and acoustic spectrum. Based on the results of the measurements, it is possible to determine changes taking place in hives that are connected with swarming, the appearance of nectar sources, and the amount of honey. It turns out that measuring the weight of a hive it is possible to monitor the behaviour of bees and, for example, to prevent the entire swarm from escaping. However, not only performing measurement is important in the project, but also sending data to an external server, as well as sending text messages by means of a built-in GSM modem. Additionally, the network itself can be formed into typical, large star networks, i.e. one base module is responsible for communication with the main database on the Internet, whereas smaller communication modules cooperate with one another and send information to the base module. You can, therefore, imagine an apiary composed of one hundred hives, where each hive is equipped with a measurement platform. Information gathered by sensors installed in the apiary is sent to the base module and then transferred by means of GSM to an external database. A combination of these options enables, for instance, the development of theft alarms or the changes in the organisation of a hive connected with the appearance of nectar sources.


Nectar sources are all goods that can be collected by bees from trees, bushes and herbaceous plants. In a sense, they are a kind of bee pasture which provides nectar, pollen and propolis. For bees, nectar sources can be wild and cultivated plants. If a bee-keeper is expecting the appearance of honeydew, he has to reorganise the hive very quickly, i.e. to set the swarm working, not developing. It can be achieved by adding extra frames. In order to discover something like this, the bee-keeper has to check the apiary every day, but thanks to the measurement platform it can be done by means of remote control. Bee-keepers often have their apiaries many kilometres away from home, hence the platform can save a lot of time, and even warn about thieves. In short: it reduces losses, and maximises gains, says Wojciech Sojka.


It is also worth noting that it is the first time we have tried to examine an acoustic spectrum in a hive, and thanks to it, to gather and analyse information concerning the behaviour of bees. We suppose that based on the sounds coming from a hive it is possible to find out what happens inside, for example, the states of swarming, or if the bees are healthy and working. If it turns out that some particular sounds can be associated with a particular situation in the hive, then collecting such information and comparing it with the location of the apiary, meteorological information and environmental pollution, we will be able to determine the best locations for bee-keeping, says the AGH UST student.


On the one hand, we would like to make a platform for bee-keepers that would be reasonably cheap to use in apiaries in order to increase honey collection. On the other hand, we want to look at certain parameters which, as it follows from our preliminary research, are not always well documented, and which concern the information of how a hive works, what are its characteristic parameters, how it reacts to changing weather conditions, and how they influence the liveliness of bees and their productivity, says Łukasz Krzak, MSc, the supervisor of the Student Special Interest Group of “Electronic Engineers”.


What does a control-measurement platform look like? Its base is scales of approximate dimensions 50 cm x 50 cm, and thickness of 10 cm. It has a built-in micro-controller, a humidity sensor, temperature gauges measuring temperature inside and outside the hive, a sound sensor, a motion sensor, and a modem for wireless communication. The entire platform will be located under the hive, and only the necessary sensors will be inserted into it. The idea is to interfere in the construction of the hive as little as possible. The platform has been designed to make the measurement modules completely independent from an electricity supply, and to have its own battery. In the future, scientists and researchers are planning to develop new solutions for providing power, which will be cheaper and more efficient.


The scientists presented a prototype of the device at the Fair of Academic Projects in June 2014, where it gathered a lot of interest. In August 2014, the project was submitted for the international competition STM32 Internet of Things Design Challenge 2014 organised by STMicroelectronics; the aim of the competition was to promote projects which are parallel with the idea of the Internet of Things. “Maja” won the competition overcoming about 100 other projects, and the presentation of awards took place at the prestigious trade fair Electronica 2014 in Munich.


And what comes next? There will be a hive, and inside the hive, there will be sensors that will collect information. – Certain information provides a direct evidence of what is happening in the hive. If the temperature increases, we can draw conclusions very quickly, although they need to be correlated with the time of the day, weather, or the season of the year. The least confident we feel about acoustic measurements, since it is a new idea that we have not tested yet. We are curious if we can see in the spectrum something that will attest to a particular behaviour of the bees, explains Łukasz Krzak, MSc. However, for data to be valuable, it needs to be collected for several years and analysed in a skilful manner. – We are engineers and we want to create a tool that will provide a lot of information for scientists who conduct research into the behaviour of insects. It is them, as specialists, who will analyse the information provided by us, and perhaps one day they will be able to explain why the entire bee families become extinct, emphasizes Wojciech Sojka. The first works on the “Maja” project began at the Student Special Interest Group of “Electronic Engineers”, where they were supervised by Łukasz Krzak, MSc, and Cezary Worek, DSc. For a few months now, Wojciech Sojka has been developing his project in an established start-up company. New versions of the devices have been developed; in the first half of April they are meant to be delivered to the first group of bee-keepers and researchers supporting the idea of creating a system of monitoring apiaries.


Information about the mass perishing of bees comes from different directions. It is suspected that the cause of the situation are pesticides, as well as the mass occurrence of the mite Varroa destructor, which is a carrier of many deadly viruses for bees. Two years ago, the European Union introduced a ban on using pesticides in order to protect bees. Information to be gathered by the researchers of the AGH University of Science and Technology would be of a particular importance for many fields of the economy. It is not about direct gains for bee-keepers, farmers or fruit-growers, but it is about gains for all of us, because in a direct neighbourhood of apiaries, crops are better by 50% or even 60%, and better crops mean lower food prices.
It is also very important to prevent a situation which is currently observed in China, where people pollinate flowers by hand. This happens, for example, in Hanyuan County in Sichuan Province, famous for pear production. There, when the pear trees are in bloom, farmers have to pollinate them with the use of special brushes made of chicken feathers placed on bamboo sticks. In the old days, pollination was the responsibility of bees, but these have not been present there for many years.
Ecologists warn that a similar scenario can become a threat to the whole world; according to the United Nations, among one hundred main species of cultivated plants, which provide people with 90% of food, as many as 71 species are pollinated by bees.


Written by Ilona Trębacz