15 Dec 2023

Without bees, there is no be

Sustainable beehive system powered by u-blox's module(s)

u-blox's module to monitor bees

Bees are essential to our ecosystem. They are responsible for pollinating about 75% of the world’s leading food crops, and their population directly reflects the healthy state of nature.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and reports from environmental advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, the bee population has been declining rapidly in recent years. Prolonging this trend could have disastrous repercussions for the planet, let alone human beings.

Still, not everything is bad news. In Slovenia, people take this matter seriously. Over generations, they have nurtured and supported bees, creating beehives in a natural environment.

Slovenian beekeepers have developed AŽ beehives to support the native bee species. These are arranged within small structures, often adorned with artistic hand-painted images depicting Slovenian traditions and places, making them unique to this country. Currently, Slovenia’s registered beehives total more than 210,000, which is approximately five beekeepers per 1,000 inhabitants.

A Slovenian beekeeper walks among u-blox employees. Jaka Bevk, a passionate engineer, leverages the company's technology to monitor the behavior of bees. This is his story.

Buzzing creativity: an idea takes flight

Jaka joined u-blox ten years ago and quickly identified the potential applications of the company’s technology in several fields. After five years, he considered implementing this technology for beekeeping.

The idea was quite simple: integrating sensors into beehives would allow him to monitor bee population growth, track individual bees for research, and detect the birth of new bee colonies, known as bee swarms. Additionally, the sensors would enable the measurement of environmental parameters and reveal bee activity correlations.

“Don't get me wrong, the idea was clear in my head, but that doesn't mean I immediately got down to business. It was not until 2021 that I finally decided to move from theory to action,” says Jaka.

Proof-of-concept design

Assisted by a 3D printer and 40 sensors, Jaka developed a prototype to count and detect bee movements and measure environmental parameters correlated to their activity.  

“The design is simple yet very powerful.”

The following video illustrates the assembly of the device and its main components.

20 infrared sensors detect whether the bees enter or leave the beehive. Additionally, the device uses 20 other sensors to detect specific markers that can be placed on the back of a worker, drone, or queen bee. All the sensors seamlessly fit into the case apertures, exposing them to the motion of bees.

bee marker device at the beehive gate

NINA-W106: the star connector

The u-blox NINA Bluetooth/Wi-Fi module, visible on the top PCB platform, receives all the signal information and sends it to the cloud.

The most significant feature of the NINA-W106 module is its capability to process all the collected data in one location. Jaka embedded application code directly into the module and, aided by tools such as Arduino or Visual Studio Code, he was able to compile it. The code processes the data gathered from the sensors, eliminating the need for an external application processor.

“The brain of my prototype is a u-blox module.”

The other two main characteristics of the module are its extremely low cost and power-saving efficiency.

Since NINA-W106 supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Jaka can access the data in two ways. For energy-saving purposes, the most convenient method is through Bluetooth.

In his case, he supported the application with a Wi-Fi interface. Choosing this second option entails two variants: either the application is supported by an access point within the NINA module that hosts a webpage from there or, as he did, by connecting the module to a router where another server will store the data.

Mark the queen bee, and you’ll mark the entire colony

Jaka has always found bee behavior interesting for two reasons. First, how bees work tirelessly and are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the colony. Second, their unwavering loyalty to their queen.

This phenomenon isn’t just a myth. Thanks to pheromones, every bee in a beehive can identify the distinct scent of its queen and will follow her relentlessly, wherever she goes.

This simple fact greatly facilitated the design of his solution. By marking the queen bee, he can monitor the movements of the entire hive.

“Detecting the marker represents the true breakthrough of my application.”

Mark the bees and get to know them

Beekeepers began marking queen bees several decades ago. By placing a small dot of colored paint or using other identification methods on a bee, beekeepers can quickly find the queen bee inside the hive. The process and materials for marking bees have evolved. Today, various techniques and colors are used to denote different information.

Types of bees and color of markers according to age

Jaka’s marker is more advanced than traditional ones. As the following sections will illustrate, he can access a substantial amount of information with his device.

The birth of a new bee colony: a crucial moment

A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day, leading to rapid growth in the bee population.  When the hive becomes overpopulated, the bees raise a new queen to take over. Once the new queen is born, the old queen leaves the hive, followed by roughly half of the bees.

“The moment a bee swarm is formed and the queen bee departs is paramount.”

Jaka can detect the queen bee leaving the hive as it passes through the bee gateway. At this point, Jaka initiates his research to ensure she and her followers aren't lost in the woods. He knows the queen bee, guided by the sun's orientation and polarized light patterns in the sky, will not travel too far. Typically, she will land at a temporary location, often choosing a tall tree.

After finding the swarm, he designates a new empty hive where the whole colony can access food, has shelter, honeycomb, and the conditions for a healthy life free from parasites or diseases.

Slovenian unique beehive structure

Monitoring: from bee to hive and beyond

The solution supported by the u-blox module not only counts the bees but also performs the following tasks:

  • Measure beehive traffic and activity, tracking bees in real time as they leave and return to the hive.
  • Store statistical data for post-processing. Data for each day can be pulled out from the database, charted, and cross-correlated. Historical logs with timestamped events are also available.
  • Predict the probability of extraordinary events, such as bee swarm formation and cross-colony robbing, based on algorithmic data processing.
  • Send notifications and alerts to end users via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi technology.
  • Measure environmental parameters, including temperature and humidity at the hive entrance, with rainfall data from state radar raw data.

In addition to the usual detection of worker or drone bees and tracking their age and movements within the hive, Jaka can also identify customized bee markers.

This allows him to have a more in-depth understanding of their behavior for research and hive observation, such as:

  • Drone bee behaviors
  • Worker bee behaviors, foraging flight durations, and counts
  • Virgin queen bee behavior: mating flight durations and counts
  • Mated queen bee detection: formation of a new bee swarm

Diving into the numbers

The first graph illustrates the number of bees exiting and entering the hive over time. It also presents the total activity, a sum of ins and outs. The peak marks the precise moment when a new bee colony was born – a bee swarm formed and exited the hive.

The second graph informs Jaka about the swarm size, which, in this case, is approximately 4,000 bees. The third graph shows the moment the marker triggers a signal when the device detects the queen bee leaving the hive.

bee gate traffic, number of bees, and marker

Jaka can also extract all the data for a specific day, like a hot summer day, to generate a graph that effectively illustrates the behavior of bee traffic. This graph enables him to discern clear correlations between bee traffic and temperature: the warmer it gets, the more active the bees become.

The second graph depicts bee traffic versus humidity. On a rainy day, humidity levels increase, and bee activity is reduced. 

bee traffic behavior with different temperature and humidity

Who says you can’t fly with grounded wings

This project is far from complete. While his prototype successfully supplies the necessary data, Jaka is eager to enhance its functionalities.

Imagine the possibilities if he could connect his beehive at home with the other 210,000 beehives in Slovenia and monitor the movements of bees across the country. What about the benefits of going a step further and creating a European network of beehives?

Enhancing Jaka’s application involves integrating positioning and cellular technology. The next step is incorporating a GNSS module for geolocation and a cellular module for transmitting data to the remote cloud while retaining Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for local connectivity in his proof of concept.

“Essentially, the solution is in the house.”

Tracking bees' behavior in real-time would offer the opportunity to ensure the reproduction of the species and gain insights into the current state of entire ecosystems.

Industrial farming and the use of pesticides, as well as sporadic events that harm the environment, are often linked to the behavior of bees. Therefore, having access to this information would be incredibly valuable, enabling proactive measures to prevent or address harmful situations.

Colony’s final thoughts

In the past, bee swarms could find a new home and survive in nature independently. But more recently, human activities have increasingly altered this process. Factors such as pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, parasites, and monoculture agriculture have disrupted this natural cycle.

Nowadays, without human intervention, a new bee swarm has less than a 25% chance of surviving the first winter. This percentage continues to decline, and at the current pace, bees will eventually rely solely on human assistance for reproduction.

Jaka is an innovator who, in his spare time, enjoys beekeeping. He inherited this hobby from his father and is passionate about contributing to a more sustainable future.

Coincidentally, Jaka has developed a bee monitoring solution using the technology he is most familiar with. As they say, when life gives you lemons, make the tastiest lemonade possible.

Jaka Bevk

Senior Engineer

Linkedin

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