Gauging Honeybees’ Status via Vibrations

R&D Magazine    By Greg Watry   November 9, 2015

The accelerometer is embedded in the honeycomb near honeybees. Image: M-T Ramsey/NTUWhen it comes to the working class in the U.S., honeybees are pulling their weight. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), the flying insects contribute over $15 billion to the value of U.S. crop production. They pollinate apples, cranberries, melons and broccoli. Almonds depend entirely on honeybees for pollination, and blueberries and cherries are 90% dependent.

Yet something inexplicable is occurring. Immense losses of honeybee populations are being reported. Managed honey bee colonies have decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. The problem is known colony collapse disorder, a “syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present,” according to the USDA.

“We want to develop a tool to find out the status of honeybee colonies—if the colony is starving, if there is a lot of foraging going on, or if the bees are preparing to swarm,” said researcher Martin Bencsik, of Nottingham Trent Univ.’s School of Science and Technology.

Bencsik and a research team developed a noninvasive prototype device that uses vibrations to sense the status of the colony. The team presented results from their device this week at the 170th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Monitoring a UK colony for 117 days and a French colony for 10 days, the team placed two ultra-high performance accelerometers in the hives, one at the honeycomb’s center and another 7 cm lower. “The bees used the honeycomb cells next to the accelerometers normally, for pollen, brood or honey, so they don’t seem to mind them,” said Bencsik. The UK colony was monitored from July to November 2014; the French from April to October 2015.

Software was written detect “begging signals,” a sound bees commonly use. The signal’s meaning is ill-defined. Some believe it signals a request for food, while others think it’s meant as a signal to halt activity.

Of particular interest to the researchers is any vibration signals sent out prior to swarming events. “Swarming occurs when the queen bee and a large cohort of worker bees leave the hive in search of a new home,” according to the Acoustical Society of America. It’s something potentially problematic for beekeepers.

Unpacking the honeybees signals may eventually help governments track honeybee epidemics, and allow beekeepers the ability to monitor the state of their hives, according to Bencsik.

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