Hacking the Honeycomb

It began without warning. In October 2006, David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, transported his colonies of honeybees to Florida for the winter. Three weeks later, he returned to find more than 90% of his hives gone. Shockingly, the hives weren’t filled with dead bees— the queens remained, but the workers had vanished. Hackenberg didn’t know why or where the bees had gone. The devastation was unlike anything Hackenberg had ever seen in his 40-plus years as a beekeeper.

Typically, the death of a colony is noticeably slow and painful, with bees dying in or near the hive. By mid-November, researchers from Pennsylvania State University were working around the clock to find an explanation. Still to this day, no one knows for sure. “I figured they’d find something out really quickly,” Hackenberg said at the 2012 National Pesticide Forum. “I got a call saying, ‘We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before.’” Shortly after Hackenberg’s discovery, reports began pouring in from across the U.S. detailing the same sudden and unexplained disappearance of 30% to 90% of beekeepers’ colonies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The phenomenon soon got a name: colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

While the world still struggles to understand what CCD really is, there is one part researchers suspect is a leading cause. In a healthy-bee breeding cycle, the queen bee lays one egg—up to 2,000 in a day— into each honeycomb cell, where shortly thereafter a worker bee covers it with a wax coating. The temperature inside the cell becomes stable, the egg incubates, and an eager worker bee emerges after 10 days. When the bees aren’t fast enough to cover the cell, mites known as the Varroa destructor can invade and feed on the developing egg. The young bee will emerge from the cell, albeit weakened, allowing the mites to reproduce and infest the rest of the hive. They destroy colonies from the inside out, just as their ominous name implies. Now one company has discovered a weapon against the parasitic bee stalkers: a climate-control device powered by the Internet of Things. It could solve the problem of CCD, but the question is whether the technology solution will get us closer to solving the larger problem, what many see as a global crisis affecting not just the bees’ well-being, but our own.

Putting the Heat on Mites

“It’s a well-known fact that heat kills bugs. I had even heard of people heating bee frames inside ovens to sterilize mites,” says Will MacHugh, a lifelong farmer. “That’s when I thought, Why not put the heating element directly in the hive?” MacHugh also realized the dimensions of circuit board panels were proportional to those of beehives. The eureka moment led to the creation of MiteNot, a biodegradable device that utilizes Bluetooth components to communicate between a central cellular interface and heating elements that sterilize mites. MacHugh learned about this problem growing up and working on his parents’ cherry ranch, where bees played an integral part in pollinating the plants.

Luckily, he had both the agricultural and the technical experience to pioneer this technology. “I got into software engineering at a fairly high level in my teen years, then went on to do some consulting,” MacHugh says. “Originally, I started up Eltopia Communications because I wanted to deliver Internet to farms. This would allow farmers to put devices out in their fields like soil-moisture probes and weather stations—anything we could monitor.”

The company began as Eltopia.com in 2002, and has since left the Internet service business to focus on machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Since its acquisition of a mobile communications company in 2014, Eltopia has focused on becoming a player in the Internet of Things by modernizing agriculture with technologies that optimize irrigation and precisely monitor weather. MacHugh has been developing MiteNot since 2013. It’s a honeycomb-patterned circuit board divided into 2-by-2-inch sections equipped with heating elements and temperature gauges, as well as BlueNRG, low-energy wireless processors from STMicroelectronics, which MacHugh calls “the heart of the system.” MiteNot is attempting to stunt the breeding cycle of the mites. Gauges detect which sections of the board need to be heated, signaled by the temperature stability that occurs when cells in a given section are sealed by the wax covering. Just enough heat is applied to sterilize the mites without harming the bees.

Buzz Kill

A new study published in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet reports that an estimated 35% of the world’s food is dependent on pollinators. This study was the first of its kind to focus on the link between pollinators and human health, and the results are startling.

Researchers modeled how human health would be affected with a loss of 50%, 75%, and 100% of pollinators. In the worst case, with a 100% loss of pollinators, the global population would experience an estimated 71 million new instances of vitamin A deficiencies, and 173 million new folate deficiencies. This pollinator collapse would also increase the number of noncommunicable and malnutrition-related deaths by 1.42 million.

Similarly, a 50% pollinator decline would result in a projected 700,000 deaths. The bee crisis has garnered international attention. In 2015 alone, it has been chronicled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, and several other news outlets. Even President Obama has come to the defense of bees, establishing a Pollinator Health Task Force and issuing memorandums on the crisis. According to a White House report on the economic impact of pollinator populations, honeybee colonies have declined at an average of 30% annually since 2006, putting the current honeybee population in the United States at around 2.5 million colonies, down from 6 million in the 1940s. Generally, most researchers agree that there is no single explanation for why bees are dying so rapidly.

Beyond the effect of mites, other theories include the use of pesticides on crops, the lack of genetic diversity among bees, and the implementation of monoculture, the farming practice of intensively growing single crops on a large scale. Dr. David Roubik has spent more than 35 years with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama studying the effects of Africanized honeybees in the tropics and the sustainability of all forms of beekeeping in the agro-ecosphere. “With intensive agriculture, there is a high demand for bees that are not native to those places,” Roubik says. “When there aren’t enough bees, everyone gripes, but it’s because the bees aren’t supposed to be there in the first place.”

Roubik notes that in the tropics and elsewhere, bees are just as abundant as ever. He cites a 2014 study from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, which showed that East African honeybees became naturally resilient to the same Varroa that devastate bees elsewhere. “If you let natural selection take its course, the bees have a chance to overcome the mites on their own,” Roubik says. “In the U.S., Europe, Japan, and maybe some of Australia, there’s a shortage of pollinators only where there is intensive commercial agriculture. It’s like burning a candle at both ends; something has to give.” Roubik is watching closely to see whether attacking the mites with a technology solution will help address the larger problem or create a potentially harmful ripple effect. “The trouble with any control measure set forth by humans is that there will eventually be resistant populations of mites. I am interested to see how the heat solution turns out after some time,” he says.

Ali Zaman is watching technology like MiteNot’s from another angle. He is director of business development at Flex’s highly strategic Innovation and New Ventures unit, a group playing a central role in fostering connected technologies and collaborative partnerships around the world.

Flex partnered with Innovation Endeavors (backed by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s newly christened Alphabet) to create Farm2050; the collective is focused on increasing food production by a needed 70% to feed the world in 2050. “The mite-killing capability is an example of how technology starts to play a role in addressing a multidimensional problem,” Zaman says. “The mites’ menace is a symptom that grows worse since the underlying root causes aren’t being effectively addressed. Researchers point to the changing landscape of agriculture and pressures in the food industry altering an ecosystem that bees depend upon.” Zaman says, similar to global warming, finding root causes begins with social awareness and leads to policy change and enforcement.

Collectives like Farm2050, whose members include large farm and equipment companies, seed specialists, and ag tech experts, is an ideal platform to help monitor and suggest ways to manage the ever-increasing demand on agriculture while warning against unintended consequences down the road. “If you make a solution efficient, smart, and connected, you have a feedback system that keeps you from taking shortcuts that can damage the environment,” Zaman says. “Companies like Flex will be playing a very crucial role to fight this collective problem—and any reversal in bee population should be a natural outcome and one of the metrics for success.” For the same reasons, mite-killing tech producer MacHugh is working with researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina to conduct further genetic testing. “The genetic structure of the mites and bees are very similar, so much so that the mites can live on bee blood,” MacHugh says. “Anything that’s good for the bees is good for the mites. Anything that is bad for the bees is bad for the mites. So, killing mites is really hard.” MiteNot is not the only current smart attempt to potentially solve colony collapse.

U.K.-based Solarcentury builds solar farms that act as biodiverse wildlife sanctuaries. Acres upon acres of solar panels are installed in fields and sown with native seeds. These areas become biodiverse hot spots that attract bee species that benefit from the safe habitat that the solar fields provide, according to research from the U.K.’s Building Research Establishment Group.

The mite-killing capability is an example of how technology starts to play a role in addressing a multidimensional problem, Zaman says.

Another company is Open Source Beehives, which makes it easy for anyone in the world to download and print beehive designs onto a single sheet of wood. The company is now developing IoT sensors that will connect users’ personal hives to the Smart Citizen global platform, enabling consumer beekeepers to track their colonies and contribute to an open, global repository of bee data. As the accessibility to IoT technology expands worldwide, companies are continuing to explore and test creative solutions to this crisis, not just so that we can continue to enjoy the foods that we eat, but because pollinators constitute a vital pillar of society linked to the health of billions.

Right now, Eltopia is focusing on research for MiteNot, but MacHugh hopes to have the technology implemented into several thousand hives by next year. “We’re just at the dawn of gathering enough information on bees to actually be able to help them,” MacHugh says. “At the end of the day, whether my stuff works or others’ stuff works, we’re very open to working with anybody.”