Published in March, a study by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service reached a somewhat obvious but important discovery about trucking bees and how hives manage stress associated with long-distance travel. The study suggests that hives under 10 frames when loaded onto trucks have trouble regulating brood temperature, affecting the development of an entire “generation” of brood and diminishing colony population just before almond bloom begins.
Brood subject to cooler temperatures during pupation “can result in developmental abnormalities when they emerge as adult bees,” suggests researcher Dacotah Melicher. “This could be the cause of smaller colonies failing within a few weeks of being shipped.”
“Hive strength was the greatest predictor of thermal stability during transportation, loss of population after arrival, and long-term colony survival.” In other words, weaker hives are less likely to survive after transportation.
Though the findings may seem obvious, this study uncovers strong evidence that supports what many of us had figured to be true. This is a giant step in the right direction for the beekeeping community, where empirical facts are rare and conflicting theories are common.
If Ian Rapoport reported on bees instead of football, his tweet on this study would no doubt include his iconic catchphrase: Big if true. If true, this finding has considerable implications for everyone involved in the pollination chain.
There’s no doubt that thousands of soon-to-be-dead-out hives are loaded onto trucks and shipped out to California each year. Some growers shrug at the idea of paying for a dead hive here and a weak hive there. To some, that’s just part of the game. In my view, if you’re worried you pay too much for pollination, you should also be worried that 100% of your workforce isn’t clocked in.
Everybody benefits from fewer dead outs among the almonds in February. Beekeepers avoid paying a hefty sum to ship empty boxes round-trip. Growers enjoy having a full-strength workforce that cost them a pretty penny to hire. If 5% of all hives fail to survive the trip to California, growers spend roughly $19 million each year on non-viable hives. Similarly, beekeepers dish out millions to truck those hives back and forth.
These inefficiencies in the pollination market make everyone, including the end consumer, worse off. The total cost to produce an almond is inflated. Growers rent 2+ hives per acre to insure against the risk of poor weather during pollination—but look at what happened this year. The weather in February was remarkably crappy, and yet many growers are reporting an excellent nut set.
I want to point out that this study is rather limited—it only examines 10 hives on a single truckload traveling from North Dakota to California. There are tons of variables like place of origin, route selection, travel distance and weather that weren’t tested. I’d like to see this study repeated on a larger scale to see how these variables come into play. Still, this study moves the needle towards a better understanding of the dynamics at play with trucking bees.
In my previous post, I introduced the concept of BPUs, or Bee Power Units, as I like to call them. The basic idea is to measure the heat emitted by a bee colony to calculate the number of bees inside. I also introduced the method of using infrared imaging to measure heat, which is what I’ll be diving into in this blog.
Much like how bees’ ability to see in ultraviolet allows them to see things not visible to us humans, the other side of the spectrum (literally) allows us to view things we couldn’t otherwise see through human eyes. In case my pun wasn’t obvious enough, I’m talking about infrared light.
Bio (or, B-eye-o) hacking
For those of you who wish to one day see infrared light through your own eyes, there's hope! A laboratory at the University of Science and Technology in China has discovered a way for mammals to see in infrared. By injecting nano-particles into the eyes of mice, researchers enabled the mice to see in infrared. As cool as this sounds, I’m not quite ready to inject nano-particles into my eyes. You gotta walk before you can run. Fortunately, there exists technology that gives us humans the capability to see in Infrared with absolutely zero eyeball injections required. They call this technology "infrared cameras".
In case you haven't been following our recent activity, infrared imaging is kind of our thing. Specifically, our product Verifli analyzes infrared images of beehives in order to calculate the strength of the colony within.
Seeing things in a different light
So! Now that we've got the cool Sci-Fi stuff out of the way, let’s take a peek at some images:
Can you tell the difference? Probably! Hive B shows a little more red/orange than the other, which means there's more heat coming out of it. Naturally, since all animals (and objects in general) radiate infrared energy, the more of an animal/object you pack into a space, the more heat radiates to the space's surface area.
You've experienced this phenomenon firsthand if you've ever been in an over-crowded room that felt more and more stuffy as more people filed in. If you took an Infrared image from outside that room before and after it filled up with sweaty bodies, you'd see a difference in the temperature of the walls. Same thing happens inside a beehive: more bees, more surface heat.
How about this next picture; which of the two hives do you think has more bees?
This one's a little tougher to tell. Hive C appears to be slightly warmer in the first honey super. But the heat in Hive D's brood boxes looks a little less "splotchy" than Hive C... So it's a wash then, right? Basically the same number of bees in each hive?
Wrong! There are roughly 7.5 more frames of bees in Hive C than there are in Hive D. That's a difference of over 10,000 bees. That's nearly 3 thousand extra foraging bees out pollinating your flowers.
So what's our takeaway here? Well, by simply glancing at these pictures, there's no way the human eye could possibly tell how many bees are within the hive. That's where we come in.
But you might say “Gleb! If we can't tell the difference, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of using heat as a metric for colony strength?” To that I say, “Nope.”
The method of measuring colony size via "frame counts" has been established by the UC Extension office for quite some time now. As I discussed in my previous post, this method entails peeking between two brood boxes and estimating how many frames are covered with bees. From both personal experience and from launching Verifli this February, we found that taking frame counts is not only tedious and arduous, it tends to be extremely unreliable.
On top of that, time of day has a significant effect on the cluster size in a colony. If you take a frame count when it’s early morning and still a little chilly, the bees will be clustered tightly over fewer frames to retain heat. Later in the day, the cluster will loosen up and spread out across more frames as the weather gets warmer. But at that point in the day, thousands of foragers will have left the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
The physics are complex, but the algebra is simple: by measuring a hive's heat signature with infrared, we can calculate the number of bees inside. Notice that this equation removes the potential for human error.
Frankly, after 2 or 3 hundred frame counts, they all start to look the same. With Verifli, there's no ballpark estimates or fatigue after grading hundreds of hives in a day.
Each year, roughly two million beehives are trucked in to California for almond pollination. Do you ever wonder where all those bees are actually coming from? Well, you may be surprised to learn that not only do they head down from the summer honey haven of the Dakotas, many hives begin the trek from as far away as Florida! Now, Florida’s a hefty 2,900-mile road trip away from California. That’s a long way to go!
Most of the bees get loaded up for shipment in the fall, just before the weather gets too cold and the bees shut down for the winter. Beekeepers will do some last minute "quality assurance" checks to make sure only the best bees make the journey out west. Those who don't reach the Golden State before Christmas will take part in a mad rush to get them dropped in the orchards in time for the almond pollination.
Bee trucking math
For the top ten states that ship bees to California for almond pollination, it can cost anywhere from $1,360--if you're coming from nearby Oregon--to over $8,000! Floridian beekeepers enjoy one of the country's best climates for keeping bees, but they dish out the big bucks to truck their bees for pollination. And that’s just a one-way ticket.
Not only do beekeepers in Florida have to pay extra for their bee transport, but they also need to carefully navigate strict state laws governing interstate bee travel. Bee Culture recounts a tale of how one Florida beekeeper got himself in trouble over all the red tape involved.
Despite the high cost, bees are still being sent from Florida out to California each year because the high pollination prices are still worth the trucking expense. But as the supply of agriculture truckers continues to dwindle, that may not be the case any longer. Uncertainty over new regulations like the Electronic Logging Device Mandate (ELD) left some beekeepers wondering whether the cost of trucking would spike. For now, agriculture truckers are exempt from the ELD mandate and Hours of Service limitations, but who knows if or when that may change.
It's just one more thing to keep an eye on as the almond industry continues to grow and the logistical challenges become increasingly strained.
For the final post in our series covering our new direction (links to part 1 & part 2), I’d like to share my thoughts on how it all went.
Our team spent months planning out every meticulous detail to deliver Verifli to our customers. Since pollination season last just a few short weeks, we had to work around a very small window with no time for mistakes. If you’ve ever experienced a product launch, you know there are a lot of emotions involved, whether you’re the customer or the one launching the product.
For me, it was interesting to reflect on what the experience felt like before, during, and after product launch. Here are some of my quick journal-entry style notes:
By the numbers
To wrap up, here are some eye-popping stats from our 20-day stint in California:
Last week, I wrote about why we decided to pursue a new direction. Now I want to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we did it. Strap yourselves in, this one’s a bit longer than usual.
Our “Aha!” moment was liberating, but it introduced a new set of challenges. Almond pollination only happens once a year, and at the time of our “Aha!” moment, the next pollination season was less than 10 months away. We had to get something out there, otherwise we’d wait 22 months until bringing new revenue in the door.
With less than a year to build something our target market was willing to pay for, we had to focus. As much as we wanted to develop that beautiful product we envisioned, complete with all the fancy bells and whistles, there simply wasn’t enough time.
We couldn’t afford to be good at all the things—we had to be exceptional at one or two important things. We narrowed in on two guiding principles: the product had to be accurate and it had to be faster than manual inspections.
Much of our time during the development phase was spent on customer discovery. We found a handful of almond growers who weren’t annoyed by our monthly phone calls. These folks were our sounding board. They would tell us if we were still on the right track or whether a course-correction was needed. Ultimately, we had to strike a balance between what they told us and what was achievable.
Accuracy is our first guiding principle for a good purpose. If it’s not accurate, it doesn’t matter how fast the product works. Before we began to think about building speedy software, we started outlining the predictive hive strength model.
The first step towards building an accurate model is to gather data. From May to November, several times a week, we’d set out at the crack of dawn to image hives under infrared. Over the course of this time, we’d end up capturing tens of thousands of infrared images. But it wasn’t as simple as taking a photo and moving on. There were a lot of variables to test in order to find what produced the best results.
That leads into a story about one of my wildest experiences in my 3+ years with The Bee Corp. In order to test the accuracy of our model over time, we conducted a handful of "marathon" data collection studies. This entailed capturing IR images of the same hives every few minutes over the course of several hours.
One muggy summer night, I was tasked with doing a marathon study all by myself from dusk to dawn. I loaded up Ellie’s car with enough sugary snacks and Red Bull to cause a heart murmur and set out to our bee yard tucked away in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. No cell reception, no WiFi signal, no escape from the dense humidity; just me and all the bugs you can imagine.
I wish I could say it was eventful. It wasn’t. It became a dreary routine: pause my podcast, turn on the camera, grab my flashlight, exit the car, take photo 1, photo 2… get back in the car, shut off the camera, play my podcast for 10 minutes and repeat. By the time the sun came up, there was a visible rut in the grass from tracing the same path 50 plus times that night.
The worst part honestly wasn’t even all that bad. Running on 20+ hours without sleep and with tablespoons of sugar and caffeine coursing through my veins, paranoia set in rapidly. Anytime I heard a strange noise in the woods, I was certain an axe murderer or a grizzly bear was just steps away. But I had a secret weapon: my infrared camera. Equipped with the superpower of night vision, I had confidence that I’d be able to get the jump on any bears looking for a quick snack.
A fun note: I ended up doing 2 overnight marathon studies, once in August and again in October. The second time was during Game 3 of the ALDS—and I’m a HUGE Red Sox fan. In the middle of the woods I was somehow able to tune into Nate Eovaldi and the Sox dish out the most lopsided pounding in Yankees postseason history 😊.
Thanks for sticking through to the end on this one. I hope you enjoyed it. Check back next week to read about Ellie’s takeaways from the February launch.