CATCH THE BUZZ – New Technology Makes Commercial Beekeeping More Efficient, Profitable

In an effort to provide beekeepers with a more effective and comprehensive management system, two Healthy Hives 2020 grant recipients recently announced a new collaboration that could help transform commercial beekeeping practices by using Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, combined with web and mobile apps, to track and manage honey bee colonies.

Hive Tracks, an apiary management software provider, and its chief executive officer, James Wilkes, PhD., have been an integral part of the Healthy Hives 2020 research conducted by Joseph Cazier, PhD., professor and director of the Center for Analytics Research and Education at Appalachian State University. Both Cazier and Brandon Hopkins, PhD., assistant research professor in the Department of Entomology at Washington State University, received research grants in 2016 that focused on how to improve management practices for commercial beekeepers.

To view a current KIM&JIM Show webinar produced in June, 2018, about this program featuring Dr. Hopkins, click on the link below or paste it into your browser –

“There are currently not a lot of management tools for commercial beekeepers. Many of them are still managing their operations with notebooks, pencil and paper, or trying to keep track of treatments and issues with objects like thumb tacks, cattle ear tags and wax pencils,” said Hopkins. “For our project, we’ve been developing a way to transform those systems into digital information that can be gathered without adding additional work or time in the field.”

By using RFID technology, that information can be analyzed to inform best practices in commercial beekeeping. Beekeepers can then use those practices to develop decision support tools that can provide timely data on their hives, ultimately decreasing losses.

But to do this, Hopkins needed to be able to collect the data. This led him to research RFID technology, which he eventually implemented with individual hives. RFID tags are used in a wide range of industries, from retail stores tracking inventory to airlines tracking baggage. Hopkins’ team began placing the tags on individual hives and worked with a software development company to create a platform that would enable beekeepers to monitor their hives for such basic beekeeping management duties as when and where the hives were checked, as well as the location of each hive.

While Hopkins was developing his RFID technology, Cazier, Wilkes and the Hive Tracks team were using their Healthy Hives 2020 grant to put the finishing touches on the second version of its innovative Hive Tracks Apiary Management System.

“Many of the major concerns of a commercial beekeeper involve the day-to-day management of the hives in an operation,” said Wilkes. “They want to know, ‘Where are my hives? How many hives do I have, and what are their conditions? Who was the last person to touch them, and what did they do?”

According to Wilkes, Hive Tracks began as a software system for hobbyists and sideliners. “However, we knew there was a huge gap in technology that could benefit commercial beekeepers,” said Wilkes. “We recognized the challenge of adopting new technology within the commercial beekeeping space, so the system had to be simple to use, and our software system provides a framework that can evolve from a super simple foundation to more complex hive level data.”

That’s where Hopkins’ research came in. “Our system is designed to focus on the bee yard level to make it accessible for adoption by commercial beekeepers,” said Wilkes. “But RFID enables you to include the hive level and opens the door for a wide range of additional information that all of us believe is important, but is often difficult to collect.”

Both Hopkins and Hive Tracks were exhibitors at the 2017 American Bee Federation conference, and it did not take long for them to consider the possibility of working together. Hopkins and Wilkes then began to talk about leveraging their respective research focuses for a more collaborative effort, which could help them accelerate their technology development and reach more beekeepers.

Hive Tracks and Hopkins are well on their way to integrating the RFID technology into the Apiary Management System. “We have begun the integration process and hope to have an RFID option tested and available for beekeepers in the spring of 2019,” said Wilkes.

“For the Healthy Hives 2020 initiative, this partnership really serves beekeepers by building one integrated platform instead of using two separate ones,” said Danielle Downey, executive director of Project Apis m. which manages the program. “One of the things we hoped would come out of this research program was innovative collaboration between the researchers, and Brandon and James are doing exactly that.”

Funded by Bayer, Healthy Hives 2020 is a $1 million research effort to improve the health of honey bee colonies in the U.S. by the end of 2020. Over the past three years, Healthy Hives 2020 has provided grants to fund 10 honey bee health research projects being conducted by 20 universities and other organizations, as well as six collaborating apiaries.

“The goal of Healthy Hives 2020 has always been to identify measurable and tangible solutions to improve colony health through enhanced collaboration and communication,” said Daniel Schmehl, Pollinator Research Scientist with Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “The collaboration between Hive Tracks and Brandon is doing just that – bringing two innovative research projects together to identify a targeted approach for beekeepers to better manage their bees.”