Winnipeg Free Press: Creating a buzz

Beekeeping has gone high-tech.

Beehives no longer have to be disturbed to see what’s inside thanks to new technology developed by Manitoba researchers.

The system uses sensors that monitor a hive’s temperature and weight, population, and the amount and type of pollen that bees bring inside. The information is automatically sent via a wireless network and computer software adds up the amount of honey that bees produce. Beekeepers can tap into the software using an iPad, that will also notify them when it’s time to harvest.

Durston Honey Farms, based in Dauphin, teamed up with Function Four, a Winnipeg software company, and Mitacs researchers led by University of Manitoba Prof. Cyrus Shafai to create the program.

Alan Campbell, head apiarist at Durston Honey Farms and president of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association, said the technology will change how bee farmers harvest honey.

“It has great potential as a way to monitor your hives, check on their health, and see what kind of progress they’re making remotely without having to go into a hive, which, for people like myself, is kind of a big thing,” Campbell said.

Bruce Hardy, Function Four CEO, said his company already had the software, which was used in the health-care sector, but it needed help with the hardware so beekeepers didn’t have to invade habitats.

“If you’ve seen hives stacked in the field, on the bottom of the stack is where the queen is,” Hardy said.

“If you want to check on the queen or the health of that hive, you have to take 40-pound stacks of honey off and then you have to open the hive up, which is very invasive.”

Hardy said that’s where the team from the University of Manitoba’s department of electrical and computer engineering came in. Over the last year, Shafai and the students developed the sensors to be built into the hives.

Shafai said there are different sensors to remotely monitor different aspects of the hive, and the technology will simplify work for beekeepers such as Campbell.

“The hives are usually placed far away out in the country in some field — you can’t lay cable links all the way back to Winnipeg,” Shafai said.

“The way they have to deal with it now is they have to send a group of people out in a truck, drive a few hours to where the hive is and check it and drive all the way back. If they can do that just by logging on to the beehive remotely from wherever the office is, then you can check all the hives really quickly in a few minutes.”

Campbell said the technology will save a lot of time, money and effort for Durston Honey Farms, which has 3,500 hives producing nearly one million pounds of honey each year in Manitoba and British Columbia.

“It takes a lot to have to go out and do inspections,” Campbell said.

“Maybe you’ve gone to a yard and you plan on harvesting honey. But, for whatever reason, that neck of the woods is a little further behind. You’ve wasted all that time and energy going to a place that you’re not going to get to harvest from anyway.”

The sensors will also monitor for problems such as mite infestations, vandalism or wildlife damage.

Campbell said a recent incident could have been solved more quickly had the software already been in place.

“One of our hives in Vancouver got attacked by a bear,” he said. “If we would have had remote sensors in there, we would have known about it the minute it happened. I could’ve had an alert come to my phone.”

Campbell said Durston Honey Farms will be the first to start using the software this summer, soon to be followed by a bee farm in Alberta.

Byline: Bailey Hildebrand