Bee Informed

Bee Informed

3:28pm Jul 22, 2016
By John Severns = Severnjc (Photo by John Severns.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. Follow Shawn on Twitter @SCIFitz.
Here’s a riddle: what is as big as the United States, as small as a bee, is looked after by thousands of people, and could disrupt the food supply? And if you’re trying to solve such a dynamic, intricate and important problem, how do you keep track of it? How do you keep everyone connected and informed so the problem can be minimized?
In 2006 Colony Collapse Disorder kind of vaulted beekeeping into the public consciousness, if you will. A big portion of our food is dependent on pollination by honeybees in particular.
Dr. James Wilkes, Beekeeper and Professor of Computer Science at Appalachian State Universtiy

That’s Dr. James Wilkes, Beekeeper and Professor of Computer Sciences at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Over half of the bee population in the US is trucked to California. Central Valley of California is where 80% of the world’s almonds are produced. Plus from almonds, they spread out all over the country. They go up the North West, they go up the East Coast, following planting, or pollination needs, fruit trees and then on into crops, and end up somewhere in the upper Midwest; North, South Dakota making honey. That’s sort of the cycle of the migratory beekeepers as we call them. It’s important from that angle that we have enough bee colonies in the US; if we’re losing 30-40% per year, that’s a big impact on commercial beekeepers.

Dr. Wilkes is at the forefront of the Bee Informed Partnership. This collaborative, involving some of the nation’s foremost institutions for science and agriculture, is working with beekeepers to better understand how to keep honey bees healthy.

I joined with some bee researchers who were wanting to look at simply collecting data on how many bees are lost during the year, and collecting real data from real beekeepers about they’re doing in their operations. So, Bee Informed Partnership, it’s..., we’re in the fifth year of it right now. The data that we’re collecting is really self-reported losses and management practices. There’s a location for each beekeeper and his colonies. We group the data geographically, so if you go to you can see a map which shows the winter loss percentage for each state. There are so many factors that it’s a very complicated problem to get a handle on. So the more data we can collect and begin to filter through, the better it’s going to be. Appalachian’s piece of that, the research side of this, was building the computing infrastructure to support gathering the data, storing the data, generating the reports. Primarily, I have undergrads that have been doing that software development work, the computer science students that are here.

Already the data is making a difference, and the project is poised to have a dramatic impact on the protection and production of honey bees.

If you do any Google search on honeybee losses, the numbers that are used in any of those articles come from this grant. It’s kind of become the standard go-to information source, and that’s being generated right out of Appalachian State. Obviously, we’re trying to have an impact on the winter losses, and five years into the grant we’re just now getting the volume of data that we can begin to do some trends analysis, or multifactorial analysis. Up to this point, it’s been pretty much, “What effect did treating your bees with this particular product have on your winter loss? Was there a significant difference between those that you treated and those you did not?” But, it’s obviously a package deal. You’re doing multiple management strategies. So we’d really like to look at what if you did this and this, what impact does that have? The thing that it’s giving us is just a reflection of what’s going on in the field. What experience are the beekeepers having? That will inform what is the state of the beekeeping community? You know, if people are making policy decisions, where should we focus resources? These numbers are certainly informing some of these decisions. I’ve managed to combine farming with computer science and beekeeping, and it’s been a great convergence in just my own personal life and career. Passion and interest have all kind of merged into this cool mix.

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