160802_SAP bees-255

One of the more fascinating facets of the computing discipline is that computer scientists (and CS majors!) have to get really good at understanding other people’s problems and then figuring out how computing can be used to address those problems.   Unless you’ve been living in a cave recently, you’ve probably heard about the plight of the honey bee. Maybe you’ve even thought that it wasn’t that big of a deal to you personally, as it’s the bees’ problem, not a people problem. It turns out that the problems bees are facing is also a significant problem for people, as around a third of our diet comes from crops that depend on domestic honey bees for pollination!

So how does one approach a problem like this? Your instinct might be to think that such problems are the exclusive domain of entomologists, epidemiologists, and other agriculture experts who have an intimate knowledge of honey bee biology and well-equipped research labs staffed with hordes of eager PhD students. While this is indeed how a lot of ground breaking bee research gets done, the computing discipline and its world buzzing with bits and bytes also has a lot to offer with regards to developing a better understanding of problems like the plight of the honey bee.

Here in GVSU’s School of Computing and Information Systems, researchers are partnering with the bee research community to come up with automated systems to capture data from live honey bee colonies. The hope is that once analyzed and interpreted, the data being gathered can be used to help identify and implement best practices in how honey bee colonies can be managed.

An electronic hive monitor deployed in the GVSU apiary at the Sustainable Agriculture Project.

An electronic hive monitor deployed in the GVSU apiary at the Sustainable Agriculture Project.

Since 2013, CS Professor Jonathan Engelsma, and a group of graduate and undergraduate researchers in the GVSU Mobile Applications and Services Lab (MASL) have been working with the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) to create a nation-wide network of hive monitors. The project, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, is seeking to establish “sentinel apiaries” around the country that monitor the weight and other metrics of live honey bee colonies 24 X 7.

CIS student researchers Matias Gil and Josiah Campbell working software that captures data from live honey bee colonies.

CIS student researchers Matias Gil and Josiah Campbell working software that captures data from live honey bee colonies.

The GVSU team created a web application with application programming interfaces (APIs), that allow hive monitors deployed around the country to forward the data gathered from live honey bee colonies to the Bee Informed Partnership. The hive monitors are manufactured by commercial companies who integrate to the interfaces defined by Engelsma and his team of student researchers. Beekeepers and beekeeping clubs can purchase the hive monitors from the manufacturers or bee supply companies and deploy them in their apiaries. During the setup process users are given the opportunity to opt-in to the Bee Informed Partnership’s program.

At the present time the team is working with computer scientists at Appalachian State University and University of Tennessee to create a single web dashboard that integrates all of the various BIP programs into a single seamless web experience. At the same time, they are looking for ways to make the data being gathered by the Bee Informed Partnership into more actionable tools that help the beekeeping community make informed colony management decisions that are relevant and effective in their particular local context.

Solving problems like this is a TEAM effort! From left to right Emily Nordyke (biology) , Bekah Suttner (CS), Mohamed Azuz (CIS grad student) , Matias Gil (CIS grad student) Sam Chilkuri (CIS grad student).

Solving problems like this is a TEAM effort! From left to right Emily Nordyke (biology) , Bekah Suttner (CS), Mohamed Azuz (CIS grad student) , Matias Gil (CIS grad student) Sam Chilkuri (CIS grad student).

In addition to the hive monitoring project, the MASL is also collaborating with Prof. Anne Marie Fauvel in Liberal Studies on a mobile app named PollenCheck. Prof. Fauvel and her students are responsible for GVSU’s apiaries in Holland and Allendale. This study just began recently, and involves developing a research protocol and mobile app that hopefully will shed some light on forage diversity here in Michigan and beyond with data gathered by studying the pollen being collected by honey bees. Prof Fauvel was also the catalyst behind an earlier DIY hive monitor developed by teams of GVSU engineering and computer science students in 2012. This project in part eventually led to the current collaboration with the Bee Informed Partnership.

Bekah Suttner working on PollenCheck iOS mobile app.

Bekah Suttner working on PollenCheck iOS mobile app.