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Technology to the rescue of threatened bees

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As the growing network of smart, connected devices starts to change our world, scientists are increasingly looking to technology for new applications – often in the most unexpected spheres, writes Mark Warren, machine-to-machine solutions manager for South Africa at Gemalto.

With global bee populations already declining significantly and under new pressure from disease, an innovative technology-based solution could provide a new source of hope for bee farmers across the world. Called “MiteNot”, the technology is currently being trialled in America, with connectivity being provided by Gemalto’s machine-to-machine (M2M) module. Should trials prove effective, the solution might hold new hope for South Africa’s own bee populations – currently under threat from American Foul Brood Disease.

Bees: taken for granted by most of us in terms of the critical role pollination plays in ensuring food security for our families and communities. With climate and habitat changes already impacting many wild bee populations, new diseases are now spreading and wiping out hives across the world – threatening food security on many continents, including our own.

The US has been particularly hard hit, with bee numbers dwindling to the extent that Californian farmers are now loaning hives from other states to ensure that cash crops like avocados and almonds are properly pollinated.

South Africa has been similarly affected, with some 40% of the bee population in our agricultural heartland – the Western Cape – decimated by American Foul Brood (AFB) disease. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries fears that this could increase pollination costs and affect crop production across the region. In an effort to prevent AFB from spreading, it has recommended that bee products like beeswax should not be exported from the province. The potential knock-on effect for farmers and farm workers is substantial[1], given that our agriculture industry is worth R20 billion a year and provides some 700 000 jobs.

Because bees play such an important role in producing crops all around the world, this is clearly a significant crisis which, if left unsolved, could affect food security on a global scale. Smart, connected technologies are, however, emerging as a potential weapon in this particular battle – offering new hope for local bee farmers.

A sophisticated technology-based solution is currently being trialled in America by a team led by Marla Spivak, McKnight University Professor of apiculture/ social insects at the University of Minnesota. The team is investigating whether it can successfully help control the mites that appear to cause the Colony Collapse Disorder currently decimating US bee populations.

Called MiteNot, the solution comprises a smart beehive frame that automatically monitors and manages the temperature within beehives. Essentially a flexible screen-printed circuit designed to look like a standard honeycomb, MiteNot’s sensors monitor the temperature of 32 specific elements of the hive that indicate brood status and different stages of the mites reproductive cycle.

The data is then fed back to the researchers by Gemalto’s M2M module, which acts as a cellular gateway – ensuring connectivity and transmitting the information to an app developed by Eltopia, BeeSafe. When specific thresholds are met, BeeSafe then communicates back to the MiteNot unit via the Gemalto M2M module, programming it to elevate heat within certain areas of the hive to sterilise the mite larvae, leaving the bees and their honey safe.

Due for commercial release towards the end of this year, the solution combines technology and applied science in a way that allows farmers to benefit from intellectual property developed at an academic institution—in a very practical way too.

There’s every indication that this technology could be adapted to enable other solutions to additional challenges facing bees. American Foul Brood disease for example, is caused by a bacterium. When a similar solution is created, there’s thus a very good chance that machine-to-machine connectivity will play a role in making it practical.

The ability to link smart machines and sensors to sophisticated software is already transforming other industries, such as logistics and health care. Examples include smart pill dispensers to ensure that patients comply with treatment regimes, and connected on-board devices that take fleet management to the next level.

We are just at the beginning of this revolution, particularly so in agriculture. As climate change impacts farmers more and more, technology will undoubtedly have a growing role to play. As such, MiteNot could be one of a series of critical solutions – offering farmers new means of ensuring productivity and efficiency in our ever-changing world.