Beekeeping and Technology

Are we on the verge of a new technological revolution in beekeeping?
By: Ross Conrad

Beekeeping technology took a huge jump between 1850 and 1875 with the invention and development of the movable frame hive, the centrifugal honey extractor, and the modern hand-held bee smoker. These are the primary technologies that modern-day beekeeping is built on and continues to rely upon. Now, well over a century later in the age of the internet, smart phones, iPads, iPods, Blue Tooth, and computers that are being built into just about everything, beekeeping appears to be on the precipice of another revolutionary jump in technology that some believe will change the face of beekeeping as we know it.

One aspect of this technological revolution is the advent of the “smart hive.” This is a hive that is wired with sensors that monitor and measure hive weight, brood nest temperature, relative humidity of the hive’s interior, and sound levels (acoustical scanning) within the hive. All this data can be collected in real time and transmitted to any device that has internet access.

For quite awhile, Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have been used to identify or track consumer products, as well as pets. It is relatively easy to see how the beekeeping industry might benefit from this service that may be used to help track hive performance and manipulations, or make identification in cases of theft easier. Bar codes may also be used to help keep track of hives, just as grocery stores use bar codes to track their product inventory and sales.

Infra Red (IR) technology using heat detecting cameras is also being used more and more by the beekeeping industry. Once the problem of matching the ideal camera to various tasks is solved, the health and vitality of hives can be quickly evaluated during all kinds of weather, the viability of queen cells can be checked, and swarms can be monitored in order to more accurately predict when they are likely to take to the air.

As an analog instrument, the traditional hand-held refractomer on the left can measure a liquid’s refractive index, and thus reveal its moisture content, just like the digital hand-held refractometer on the right. Digital refractometers are generally considered to be more precise than traditional hand-held refractometers though less precise than bench top models used in labs. Digital models also require batteries and a slightly larger sample to read from since the sample is not spread thinly against the prism as in traditional models. Which model will be most desirable in 10, 20, 50 or 100 years from now?

Another area of development has been the use of LIDAR in beekeeping. As opposed to RADAR, which utilizes radio waves to calculate distances by measuring the time it takes for a signal that is reflected off an object to bounce back to the source, LIDAR uses laser light in a similar way. Lidar is able to recognize bee size, wing beat frequency, and flight movement without the need to attach tags or transmitters to individual bees as has been the case in the past.

In an effort to address some of the virus issues of parasitic mite syndrome created by Varroa, the biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression called RNA Interference (RNAi) is being studied and developed. The effort is being undertaken in the hopes of creating another tool for beekeepers in their effort to overcome viral infections.

These are just some of the technologies that seek to extend and refine the senses and abilities of the beekeeper. Many of them may prove helpful though probably only for those that will be able to afford them – mostly the large industrial beekeepers and the very small backyard beekeepers who hold down good paying jobs outside of beekeeping. Unfortunately as is usually the case with new technologies, there are numerous issues and problems that these technologies either create or inflame.

Is it possible that once a beekeeper comes to rely on technology to monitor hive health and conditions for example, their beekeeping skills may start to atrophy? Over time it is likely that for at least some of us, our ability to successfully judge a hives state of health, level of food stores, disease condition, or readiness for manipulations will decrease without the benefit of regular practice and use. This issue may not be considered a serious problem as long as our technology is there to fill the void, but what happens when our technology fails? Batteries die out, gadgets break or wear out, internet service gets interrupted – things happen, and when they do the importance of being able to back up your technology with old-fashioned manual beekeeping skills and technologies becomes clear. What happens when a new beekeeper starts out their beekeeping career relying on such technologies? Will their initial reliance on technology retard the development of their manual beekeeping talents, the same skills that today are normally used to gather the necessary information needed to judge which hive manipulations, if any, are necessary? It seems possible that an over-reliance on technology may lead to beekeepers whose beekeeping skills are diminished from lack of use, or even worse, beekeepers that never develop good beekeeping skills in the first place. Will the increased use of technology stifle the development of the beekeeper’s creative, intuitive side of the beekeeping craft, and what will it do to the sacred connection that humans have long shared with honey bees and the natural world? We already have problems with beekeepers that make mistakes in evaluation and judgment when inspecting hives. Is it wise to turn to technology in order to try and solve these issues rather than old-fashioned education, practice, and experience? I don’t claim to know the answer to all these questions, but I think that it is important that they are asked and seriously considered.

Technologies such as those cited above are often promoted as time savers, but on closer examination is this really true? When one considers the time it takes to procure these technologies, learn how to use them, calibrate, maintain, implement and repair them, not to mention the time that had to be traded for the money needed in order to acquire the technology in the first place, how much time is actually saved in the end?

Most of these technologies are highly energy intensive; require the mining of increasingly scarce rare-earth minerals, and/or high tech clean rooms that have extremely low levels of environmental pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes, aerosol particles and chemical vapors. These energy intensive technologies are being developed at a time when our ability to tap into new sources, and continue to produce and distribute our current energy resources (primarily fossil fuels) at an ever-increasing pace is rapidly diminishing. Our relatively quick, inexpensive and easy sources of fossil-fuels are declining, requiring the development of unconventional fuel sources that are much more expensive, dangerous, and environmentally destructive to obtain. Add to this about 300 years of greenhouse gas (GHG) production that is a result of the burning of fossil fuels and has initiated the growing crisis of rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and increasingly unpredictable and severe weather patterns, and it is easy to imagine that a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and the accompanying energy intensive technologies that they have enabled is not only necessary, but just around the corner. To paraphrase Winston Churchhill, you can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else first.

It has been said many times that the craft of beekeeping is as much art as it is science (and by extension, technology). However, I suspect that the technologies that will be used by our great, great grandchildren will more closely resemble the technologies that our great, great grandparents used than anything that is emerging today. Even current technologies that are highly relied upon by today’s beekeeping industry can be expected to be phased out and eventually abandoned. This includes the use of gasoline powered forklifts and diesel trucks to move hives and transport them over long distances, which will in turn initiate a massive change in how we approach agriculture and pollination. Given that air travel is one of the most highly energy intensive and GHG emitting forms of transportation, and there are no viable renewable clean energy sources that can replace jet fuel, the decline in our ability to ship packages of bees by plane around the world is poised to decline dramatically, if not be eliminated entirely within two to three decades. The shift away from fossil fuels and development of cleaner, renewable energy sources is starting to pick up pace around the globe. However, it is a mistake to think that we can simply replace the highly concentrated energy sources we have in fossil fuels with the more diffuse energy of sun, wind, water, geothermal, biomass, animal or human power.

All this suggests that the beekeeping technologies of today, and those being envisioned for tomorrow, should not be relied upon too heavily if keeping bees successfully over the long-term is our goal. This is in direct contradiction to the last 200-300 years of experience in which the quickest way to prosper has been to ride the wave of progress, using more energy, more resources and more technology than your competitors. I suspect that over the next century, the quickest way to succeed and prosper will turn this rule upside-down. Those that can get by with fewer resources, less energy inputs, and simpler technologies will be the ones that will survive in the long run.

One of the lessons we can learn from the devastating wars and disasters of the 20th century is that the difference between having a lot of energy available and having only a little energy available is much less important than the difference between having a little and having none at all. The wise beekeeper will be investing today’s relatively abundant resources in the technologies and energy sources that will carry us well past tomorrow. This will make it a lot easier to continue to provide at least a little energy when it is needed and help cushion the challenges that will be created by the necessary phasing out of fossil fuels and their accompanying high energy, resource intensive technologies. As a result, I will be keeping my trusty old hand-held manual smoker, and hand-cranked extractor on hand even though I may find myself using an electric extractor or electric smoker today or tomorrow.

Ross Conrad authored the revised and expanded 2nd edition of Natural Beekeeping published in 2013 and will be leading a symposium on natural beekeeping for the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild on Sunday February 8th. Visit for more information.