Novel research looks to transform the decline of the beekeeping sector

HONEYBEES may soon be able to communicate their poor health to beekeepers as a result of major new research which looks set to transform the practice of beekeeping and halt the worrying decline of the sector in Europe.

A consortium – initiated by Nottingham Trent University and the Bee Farmers Association of the United Kingdom (BFA) – has launched a €1.4m EU-funded study, which aims to monitor and decode the buzzing of bees in the hive and pass crucial information to beekeepers via wireless technology.

The researchers have already developed a hi-tech method of using accelerometers – devices which are sensitive to minute vibrations – to detect and translate the vibrations caused by bees during their activities and as they communicate with one another.

As a result they have been able to monitor when a hive is about to swarm, which leads to the loss of bees – but are now investigating changes and patterns in buzzing which may indicate specific health disorders, or deterioration in the hive.

The experts are developing methods to transfer wirelessly instant alerts to the beekeeper, either via email or SMS, so that they can intervene and manage their colonies accordingly.

The research is expected to significantly improve the efficiency of beekeeping, making it far less time-consuming and costly, as well as improving the health monitoring of the honeybee. Beekeeping currently requires physical visits and regular inspections of every single hive by Europe’s 600,000 beekeepers, who have to nurture their bees, regardless of conditions.

Beekeeping generates more than €400m a year in Europe alone, yet only 54% of the total demand for honey and other bee products is being produced on the continent. Bee populations and beekeeper numbers in Europe have been falling at an alarming rate and honey imports to the EU, from countries such as Argentina and China, have risen by 20% since 2001.

“Despite its importance and the obvious potential for growth, serious problems face the beekeeping sector,” said Dr Martin Bencsik a physicist and researcher in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

“Action to bring modern management tools to beekeeping and action to halt the decline of the European beekeeping sector is urgently needed, particularly as bees play such a vital role in agricultural productivity. We now have the potential to achieve this.

“Our tool will allow us to remotely diagnose colony status without the need for systematic invasive opening of individual hives for inspection. Commercial beekeepers will be able to keep more hives over greater geographical distances, which will both increase their efficiency and profitability.”

Honeybees’ contribution to the world’s economy is huge. The economic value of pollination worldwide is estimated to be at least €153bn, which represents almost one-tenth of the value of the world’s agricultural production for human food. More than two-thirds of food crops and more than one-third of food production depends on pollinators, while 84% of vegetables grown in Europe depend on pollination.

The study, funded by EU Framework Programme 7, also involves the European Professional Beekeepers Association (EPBA) in Germany, and the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in France.

SMEs including the Research and Information Centre for Bee Culture in Belgium; Germany’s CAPAZ GmbH and SZOMEL Services and Trade LLC of Hungary, are also collaborating.

David Bancalari, the Research and Administration Officer of the Bee Farmers Association, said: “This could be the golden hour for bee farmers. For years we have been struggling to improve the health of our bees. We know early 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 (INRA) added: “This research is especially stimulating as it can lead to a new modern way of managing hives and it will also be a very beneficial tool for research into honey bee biology.”