This year has been among the hottest years on Earth, July being no joke. With the unusually high UV radiation coming from the sun and incoming heat waves, one can really feel the sting of summer on their skin. Speaking of stings, how are the bees staying cool this summer?
We know that bees naturally vent hot air out of their beehive, and cool it down by fanning their wings. An individual healthy hive is comprised of tens of thousands of bees, all working together to maintain the colony's core temperature. Whether fanning to cool down during the summer or clustering to stay warm during the winter, bees are always toying with the thermostat to their internal HVAC system.
This has me wondering: how hot is a bee?
Hot or not?
We can calculate the amount of heat a single bee exerts based on how many bees are in a hive and the volume of the hive. Making lots of assumptions, we can now cross the t’s here, dot the i’s there, take the derivative of temperature with respect to the volume, compute gas laws, et voila! We find that each bee is between 30-38 degrees C (or you can just read this paper).
Of course, my estimate is very rough, and the paper goes into more in depth methods on how they found those numbers. Not all bees are created equal, in fact; some bees contribute more, and some less with a variation of up to 12 degrees.
Bees are known for their complex ecosystem and efficient task delegation. A honeybee colony is a uniquely selfless community known as a "superorganism". Rather than trying to complete a diverse range of tasks individually, bees realized they can be better off by dividing the workload and specializing in certain tasks. Part of this ecosystem is something I find absolutely astonishing: Heater bees, a sub-caste of nurse bees with abnormally high body temperature that strategically maneuver about the hive.
These wireless space heaters aren't just for comfort—their precision temperature control is important for raising brood. Brood frames that will produce foragers need to be kept at a slightly higher temperature than brood being raised for housekeeping tasks. These little ladies will even squeeze into empty forager brood cells to warm it up from the inside, working as a radiator of sorts (minus the coolant flush). How neat is that?
I'm always fascinated by all the quirks and factoids there are to learn about bees. Even one small area of research—hive temperature regulation--has produced so many revelations about how a hive works. But revelations also lead to more questions, such as why does hive temperature drop when a colony becomes queenless? A great question for a future post...
It’s been well established by researchers and experts that a stronger colony produces greater pollination value. Joe Traynor, a preeminent pioneer of pollination, estimated in 1999 that an 8-frame colony will send out 7 to 10 times more foragers than a 4-frame colony.
More recently, Randy Oliver’s analysis of data from Dr. Frank Eischen revealed that the marginal value of frame strength appears to be more linear—4-frame colonies provide half the value of 8-framers, and 1/3 the value of 12-framers. Still, Randy’s analysis indicates that growers are getting a bargain for strong hives and overpaying for weak hives.
After poring over these studies, I wondered whether we could estimate the marginal value of a single bee. That is, how much pollination value does each additional bee provide? Thanks to some number-crunching from our intern, Dalia, we came up with a reasonably solid estimate. Keep in mind, this back-of-the-napkin analysis doesn’t account for important factors like weather variability, management methods or other costs of production.
Calculating marginal value
These numbers are from the 2011 season, the most recent complete set of data available. You may recall that 2011 brought a record yield at 2,600lbs/acre statewide, despite notoriously poor weather during pollination season.
Fact: In 2011, about 1.5 million colonies traveled to California to pollinate 750,000 acres, producing nearly 2 billion pounds of almonds.
Fact: An 8-frame hive contains approximately 14,000 bees.
Fact: The market price for an 8-frame hive was about $150 in 2011.
Bottom line: In 2011, almond growers earned 19 times the value they paid for each bee. NINETEEN TIMES!! This number is insane. Imagine a manufacturer making a 94.7% margin on their cost of labor. That just doesn’t happen.
Apple, the most profitable company in the world, makes a gross margin of about 21%. Amazon runs a 1.7% margin. This comparison is Apples to oranges (see what I did there?), but it almost makes sense if you look at the beehive as an uber-efficient pollination factory.
Now, although this breakdown could be substantially more robust, I think it’s important to start looking at pollination through this lens of marginal value. If Randy Oliver’s findings are indeed correct and the value of each frame remains linear regardless of the total number of frames in a colony, then the debate over stocking rate and frame strength is moot.
The true value isn’t number of colonies per acre or average frame strength; what really matters is the total number of bees out foraging.
Small-scale beekeepers are part of a thriving community that so heavily relies on cooperation and mentorship. Hobbyists and sideliners go out of their way to teach others, support local clubs and help newbies get off the ground. Yet as operations scale into the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of hives, a different community appears to emerge. A community that doesn’t always feel so cooperative.
There are plenty of good reasons for why large-scale beekeepers hold their cards close to their chests. For one, these beekeepers aren’t doing it for fun; commercial beekeepers need to be competitive because, like any business, their livelihood is at stake. Taking an aspiring commercial beekeeper under your wing to show them the ropes could create a monster that eventually eats into your business.
Other factors have to do with the nature of the job. Beekeepers don’t spend their time in an office making calls, connecting and networking with clients and vendors. Beekeepers—even the big guys—are out working the bees every day. They need all hands on deck, otherwise the work won’t get done. It’s difficult to set aside a couple hours to show a new guy how to move through hundreds of hives in a day.
Beekeepers are isolated. Major operations are often located in the middle of nowhere. Even if one can arrange to spend a few days shadowing with a commercial beekeeper, driving up to Musselshell, Montana can be a major pain.
Beekeepers spend far more time with bees than with people. This point may sound obvious, but it’s easy for isolated beekeepers to develop a bit of tunnel vision. Working bees is a practice in observation. Spending months on end observing nothing but your bees can cause one to forget that there are others out in the trenches going through the same struggles.
How can we contribute?
Here’s my point: the commercial beekeeping community is too shut-off. We need more large-scale beekeepers to embrace the small beekeepers’ model of cooperation and mentorship if we expect the next generation to carry this industry into the future.
Here are a few simple things we can all do to pitch in:
Before I sign off, I should point out that there are many exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can spout off more than 20 big-time beekeepers whose contributions to the community far outweigh what they ask in return. Expect a follow-up post from me spotlighting some of the truly altruistic beekeepers who are devoted to building our community.
Have you heard this news? Scientists in Japan have built a pollinator bot, a remote-controlled drone, that can go from flower to flower, brushing against the flower’s stamen with a horsehair paintbrush that’s covered in a sticky ionic liquid gel, both lifting off pollen from each flower as well as depositing some of that pollen on to the next. It’s a little hard to “drive”, but put Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the driver's seat and this may be the future of pollination.
But, hold on, hold on…. Let’s pump the brakes for a second here, folks. Is it even feasible at this point that these drones could take over the role of the honeybee in the pollination process?
Breaking down the numbers
Thanks to Joe Traynor's excellent analysis which inspired this post, we know about half of the foraging bees per acre (~4,000 bees) will be actively pollinating at one time. The other half will be back in the hive (or on their way back) to offload their pollen and fuel up for the next trip.
The bees end up visiting each flower multiple times during their daily foraging period, from around 10:00am to 2:00pm. The extra trips to the flowers, dropping off extra pollen, stimulates the growth of the pollen grain that did end up pollinating the flower.
Each tree has about 20,000 flowers. With 40 bees to pollinate each tree at the rate of about 10 flowers per minute, they’ll be able to pollinate about 96,000 flowers during a work day. Which equates to visiting each flower 4 to 5 times.
Comparing the costs
Now, until AI can replace a manual operator, a remote-controlled drone needs a human to control it. Let’s say a person controlling a drone is super focused and can pollinate 5 trees, lush with almond bloom, trying their best to get all the flowers nestled within the branches, in a day, at $15/hr.
Picking a winner
To get the pollination job done in the same amount of time using drones, it would cost over $100,000--more than 8 times as much as the cost of renting bees!
So, beekeepers of the world, sit back and relax for now. When it comes to pollination, the honeybee is key!
Imagine this: it’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting on the porch, enjoying a cool breeze, rocking back and forth in a hand-crafted red cherry rocking chair. Suddenly, your serenity dissipates as your phone *dings* with a notification: “You’re running low on eggs in your fridge, would you like me to order another dozen?” This is the world we live in today.
The basics of IoT
The concept of the Internet of Things has been floating around since as early as 1982. Carnegie Mellon University pioneered a modified Coke machine, capable of reporting its inventory and the temperature of its drinks. At the time, this was thought of as groundbreaking technology, but now it’s everywhere. Your smart refrigerator tells you when to pick up groceries, your Fitbit alerts you when your heartrate reaches dangerous levels, and your driver assist warns you when there’s a car in your blind spot. All these items are part of a concept known as the Internet of Things (IoT for short).
At a basic level, IoT is a network that delivers information to decision-makers as soon as an event occurs. This information may be used to inform us when an issue exists (like when a traffic light is broken), collect data to help us understand processes (like how much of a certain input you’ve used), connect humans, monitor areas, you name it. Currently, there are over 8 billion connected devices on the planet, and this number is continuing to rise.
IoT or IoBee?
IoT is a major buzz word these days, and the limitless applications can be exciting, but likewise, such fast-paced advancement in technology can be overwhelming. You may have heard about how Amazon is working on IoT wristbands to track employees. Is this a scary “Big Brother” tactic designed to punish slackers, or a wise business strategy aimed at maximizing efficiency?
Despite the apparent privacy risks, IoT creates possibilities that can help to make our lives easier and make businesses more efficient. Industries that deal with gigantic stocks of inventory use IoT to find where things are stored, how much is there and how long it’s been in storage. Agriculture producers use IoT to monitor things like irrigation pumps and soil nutrients. This raises the question: how can beekeepers benefit from adopting IoT?
Think about what information helps you manage your bees. Wouldn’t it be useful to know when a nectar flow or a dearth has just started? How about if you got a notification when a honey-bound colony is about to swarm? What if you could track what kind of honey was being produced based on the nectar sources the bees were visiting? There are countless IoT applications that could help beekeepers better manage their hives.
Beekeepers today face many problems whose solutions may be just around the corner, in the form of IoT. In years past, issues like short battery life and shoddy communication networks (like 4G LTE and Bluetooth) made IoT applications too costly and unreliable for certain industries, but those issues are rapidly being solved.
We’re at a point where some of our crazy ideas—like, “what if my queens could tell me how many eggs they’re laying each day”—might actually be possible. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how we could use IoT to solve some of the problems beekeepers face on a daily basis.