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How are the bees doing?

Thanks to EU-funded research, the monitoring of bees in the hive is going wireless. © Shutterstock
Thanks to EU-funded research, the monitoring of bees in the hive is going wireless. © Shutterstock

Innovative new EU-funded research aims to help tackle an alarming decline in Europe's bee population. At Nottingham Trent University in the UK researchers are developing new methods to transfer wirelessly information about the health of the hive to the beekeeper.

Wild species such as honey bees are said by researchers to be responsible for pollinating around one-third of the world's crop production. But concern across Europe about the collapse of bee populations has triggered a heated debate about the possible causes and remedies.

The three-year ‘Swarmonitor’ project aims to produce a prototype for a product which will offer hope to Europe's besieged beekeepers.

Researchers aim to monitor and decode the buzzing of bees in the hive and pass vital information to beekeepers via wireless technology.

The goal is to develop a hi-tech method of using accelerometers – devices which are sensitive to tiny vibrations – to detect and translate the vibrations caused by bees during their activities.

A team led by Nottingham Trent University in the UK wants to develop methods to transfer wirelessly instant alerts to the beekeeper, either via email or SMS, so that they can intervene and manage their colonies accordingly.

‘This research could give us those vital, lifesaving early signs of problems allowing us to tend to our bees much sooner, giving us the equivalent of the golden hour in human first aid’.

David Bancalari, Bee Farmers Association, UK

There are 600 000 beekeepers in Europe, mainly SME family-owned companies and it's an industry that generates some EUR 400 million. However, the European Union has a net negative trade-balance in bee products, mainly honey, producing only 54 % of its demand.

Despite its importance and the obvious potential for growth, serious problems face the sector, with both bee populations and beekeeper numbers falling at an alarming rate, while honey imports to the EU have risen by 20 % since 2001.

Action to halt the decline is clearly urgently needed, hence the 'Swarmonitor' initiative.

Team leader is Dr Martin Bencsik, who said: ‘The idea is for us to produce a product for use by beekeepers which will measure potential problems in the hive.’

‘For example, increased buzzing could be a sign of bee disorder. A “swarming” event could be an indicator of another problem and can lead to loss of bees. The device we hope to produce at the end of the project would be designed to trigger an alarm in such an eventuality. This in turn would alert the beekeeper to the need to open the hive.’

Dr Bencsik, a physicist and researcher in the university's School of Science and Technology, added, ‘It may be necessary to open the hive to give extra food to the bees or supply medication if, say, there is a mite infestation.’

Detecting early signs of problems

The project's overall objective is to provide an early warning system which allows small and hobby beekeepers the opportunity to more closely manage their colonies.Dr Martin Bencsik is a physicist and researcher in the university's School of Science and Technology, at the Nottingham Trent University in the UK. Courtesy of Martin BencsikDr Martin Bencsik is a physicist and researcher in the School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. Courtesy of Martin Bencsik

The research, said Dr Bencsik, is expected to significantly improve the efficiency of beekeeping, making it far less time-consuming and costly.

The study, funded by the EU, also involves the European Professional Beekeepers Association in Germany and the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France.

SMEs, including the Research and Information Centre for Bee Culture in Belgium, Germany's CAP GmbH, Szomel Services and Trade LLC of Hungary, are also collaborating.

David Bancalari, of the Bee Farmers Association (UK), said the early information would give bee keepers critical advance warning. ‘For years we have been struggling to improve the health of our bees and we know intervention is crucial. This research could give us those vital, lifesaving early signs of problems allowing us to tend to our bees much sooner - giving us the equivalent of the golden hour in human first aid.’

Yves Le Conte, of the National Institute for Agricultural Research, added: ‘This research is particularly stimulating as it can lead to a new modern way of managing hives.’

Pollinators under scrutiny

Another EU-funded research programme also aims to improve understanding of the nature and causes of the threats facing bees. The 'Status and Trends of European Pollinators' project (STEP) will document the nature and extent of the decline in wild pollinator populations, including bees, and develop a 'red list' of important European pollinator groups. It will also assess the relative importance of potential drivers of pollinator decline, including climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and agrichemicals.

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