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The internet of things could save the honeybee from extinction

Gemalto’s M2M unit is developing an ambitious project with agricultural science firm Eltopia and the University of Minnesota. The objective: to save the honeybee from extinction

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In a report on the internet of things (IoT) released in 2014, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor Mark Walport warned against “trivialising” the potential applications of the IoT.

Walport said talk of intelligent fridges that can order fresh milk online and washing machines that book their own repair jobs was damaging to this fledgling industry, and distracted attention from the true value of the IoT – improving the standard of living for everybody, not just those that can afford a connected microwave.

But now, the IoT may have found a key use case study in the fight against Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the devastating condition that has decimated honeybee populations worldwide. The IoT may not only be on the verge of saving the honeybee, but humanity itself.

CCD occurs when most of the worker bees living in a colony vanish, leaving behind food and a small cohort of bees to care for both the immature larvae and their abandoned queen. 

It is a long-observed phenomenon and has gone by many different names in history, but it came to prominence in the middle of the last decade, when a sudden rise in occurrences in Europe and North America brought the condition to worldwide attention.

CCD is arguably one of the gravest and least understood environmental threats facing humanity. Bees pollinate more than two-thirds of the 100 most important crops that feed around 90% of the world’s population, according to a 2014 BBC documentary.

In the US, the crisis has become so severe that every spring millions of bees have to be bred and shipped to California, where 80% of the world's almonds are grown, simply to pollinate a single crop.

If the honeybee was to become extinct, it would have devastating consequences for the agricultural industry, which would no longer be able feed the human population of more than seven billion people. In short, without bees, many millions – if not billions – of people could die.

Varroa destructor

In light of this admittedly dramatic yet still entirely plausible prognosis, scientists around the world have been racing to find an answer to the problem.

One of the main causes of CCD has already been identified as the presence of a mite named Varroa destructor. The mite is only able to reproduce in colonies of European honeybees/Apis mellifera and Asiatic honeybees/Apis cerana.

Varroa mites feed on haemolymph, which is the equivalent of blood in mammals and is found in all insects. They transfer a number of viruses to the bees, including the ominously named deformed wing virus, which is an RNA virus – a fast evolving group of viruses that includes Ebola and SARS. Should a major mite infestation occur, the colony would likely be wiped out.

Varroa can be treated with pesticides, but because pesticides are also thought to be a factor in some CCD cases, Marla Spivak, distinguished McKnight university professor of apiculture and social insects at the University of Minnesota, wanted to develop a non-chemical way to control it. She turned to agricultural communications firm Eltopia and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications specialist Gemalto to help do so.

Netherlands-based Gemalto specialises in digital security services and networks. It builds secure software and operating systems that are embedded in a number of connected devices or objects, including SIM cards, bank cards, tokens, electronic passports and ID cards, which are all basic components of the IoT.

Gemalto has previously been involved in environmental projects, supplying the Brazilian government with solar-powered modules to detect and alert authorities to illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

According to Manfred Kube, Gemalto head of marketing for M2M, the company highly values corporate social responsibility, and Kube has been keen to look for projects that put its technology to good use outside of its traditional applications around business processes and logistics.

The MiteNot project

Working alongside Spivak and Eltopia, Gemalto has assisted in the design and deployment of MiteNot, a smart beehive frame specifically designed to monitor and manage the internal temperature of the hive in which it is installed.

According to Kube, temperature is important because it can help control the mite problem. “When you heat up the beehive at the right time of the mite breeding cycle, you can effectively sterilise them and keep them under control.”

In fact, the idea of heating up beehives to combat Varroa destructor, but leaving the bees and their broods undisturbed, has been around since the 1970s, when it was developed in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

“However, this process must be closely monitored, and because beehives are often remote and certainly have no Wi-Fi, M2M came to mind,” says Kube.

MiteNot is an entirely biodegradable and compostable frame – essentially a screen-printed circuit composed of renewable resources, such as cornstarch, and covered in wax. It is camouflaged and discretely designed to act like a traditional frame a beekeeper might use for bee reproduction.

Gemalto and Eltopia have embedded sensors into the frame to monitor 32 different aspects of the hive that indicate the status of the brood and the mites’ reproductive cycle.

A controller then sends this data to Gemalto’s rugged Cinterion PHS8, one of the slimmest M2M communications modules currently available. Each module provides a gateway onto a 3G mobile network to feed the data back to Eltopia’s application, BeeSafe. They include two antenna pads to guarantee more consistent speeds, currently around 14.4Mbps down and 5.7Mbps up.

If the sensors indicate preset thresholds have been met, BeeSafe will then command the Cinterion PHS8 to tell the controller to elevate the heat levels.

MiteNot incorporates a full range of M2M features and functionality for all current 3G technologies, including High Speed Packet Access+ (HSPA+) and five band Universal Mobile  Telecommunications Services (UMTS), says Kube.

“This means the bees could watch high definition movies if they wanted to. We also wanted to give Eltopia a migration path to 4G for when the US sunsets its 3G networks,” says Kube.

MiteNot is set to launch later in 2015 as a commercially available system, subject to the completion of successful trials.

“Eltopia’s MiteNot project is the most innovative and holds the most promise to turn the bee crisis around than any other idea that has come along in a very long time, maybe ever,” says Spivak.

There are many other suspected causes of CCD besides the presence of the Varroa destructor mite in a hive, some of which may act synergistically to exacerbate the problem.

At the time of writing the presence of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides, selective commercial breeding resulting in lack of genetic diversity in the honeybee population, malnutrition, increased electromagnetic radiation, climate change, and genetically-modified crops have all been put forward as theories.

However, if MiteNot proves a commercial success, we may well be on the way to beating CCD once and for all, and the IoT will have proved its worth in safeguarding worldwide food security, which has to be worth more than a connected fridge.

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