Higher Education, Sustainability, and Technology

Grant boosts GVSU professor’s honeybee study

Electronic scales measure increases and decreases in the weight of hives.

August 26, 2016
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Honeybees are dying, and researchers still don’t know why. But with a third of the food people eat dependent on honeybees, it’s imperative they find out.

Research is being done at institutions across the country, including Grand Valley State University, to determine the cause of the decline.

Jonathan Engelsma, a professor of computing at GVSU and a hobby beekeeper, is one of the researchers who have been involved in honeybee research at the university. He received a four-year, $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue his work.

Engelsma began his research in 2012, leading a group of GVSU students in the development of a website tied to electronic scales that are placed under hives in the field.

“The scale network that I’ve been working on is now fully operational,” Engelsma said. “The scales are being manufactured by commercial vendors who have integrated their solutions with the application program interfaces we put together.

“There are over 165 scales out in the field around the United States delivering data every 15 minutes.”

Two of those scales are located in the apiary at GVSU.

The scales capture weight, humidity and temperature at 15-minute intervals, and the website allows anyone to remotely monitor the activity at a specific apiary and observe data such as weight increases and decreases in hives.

"Every morning when the sun warms a hive, we'll see the weight drop about four pounds, as bees leave to find nectar and pollen,” Engelsma said. “Around mid-day, we see the weight increase, as bees bring nectar and pollen loads back to the hive. Observing weight increases and decreases can reveal a lot of information about a hive.”

Engelsma said it's healthy for a colony to gain weight but not to lose it.

The data collected by the electronic scales is stored at hivescales.beeinformed.org, which is part of the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration of efforts across the country to better understand honeybee declines in the United States.

The partnership includes some of the leading research labs and universities in agriculture and science, and it is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

According to its website, the Bee Informed Partnership takes its methods from cancer researchers, gathering large amounts of data from beekeepers and studying honeybee health on a large scale.

The goal of the data is to track how many hives are lost each season and how the bees were kept during the season.

The organization then uses statistics to find trends toward better beekeeping practices that result in healthier honeybees.

Engelsma said now that the electronic scales are operational across the country and the data is being collected in real time, the next step is to make that data “actionable” by providing tools and resources for people in the beekeeping community.

“We are trying to take our data and make it available in ways that are informative to the community, so they can understand what is going on in their colonies,” he said.

Engelsma said the Bee Informed website consists of several projects, and he wants to create a way for honeybee keepers and researchers to be able to track all of the projects with which they are involved.

“This year, we are focused on creating an integrated dashboard — in other words, a web app, where program participants can log in and on-demand see all of the data in the programs they are participating in, in a single dashboard,” he said.

For instance, he said a participant might want to review electronic scale data as well as disease load data, which is another data set being collected through the Bee Informed Partnership.

Engelsma said his team also will be looking at creating mobile apps for entering data and for providing real-time help to beekeepers.

Engelsma is working on another project with Anne Marie Fauvel, affiliate faculty of liberal studies at GVSU, and a group of students.

They are developing a mobile app, called PollenCollect, which will help beekeepers track bee forage around the state of Michigan.

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