by Samantha Wittchen
It’s a sunny afternoon in early June, and Wynn Geary’s beehives are abuzz with activity. In his Manayunk backyard, Geary checks on a hive full of bees that he and his father recently collected from a swarm in North Philly. He pulls a computer from a cooler next to another hive emblazoned with the words “Smart Hive,” and fires up a real-time video of the bees from a camera mounted inside the hive.
“I’d love to know where they go when they leave the hive,” says Geary, a 2015 graduate of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy (SLA). Soon, he might.
Like a handful of other beekeepers and enthusiasts across the globe, Geary has been working on a “smart” beehive, one that uses sensors and cameras to monitor the activity and health of its apis residents. What began as a senior project has grown into a much larger endeavor, one that could potentially impact the future of bees.
Geary, who convinced his family to start keeping bees three years ago, got the idea to build a smart hive from an Indiegogo campaign for an organization building hives and sensors that stream data to a computer. Geary planned to buy some plywood, fabricate a beehive at West Philadelphia’s Department of Making + Doing (DM+D), and install the organization’s sensor kit (Full disclosure: I am a member of the DM+D community). But as the kit’s release became delayed, Geary realized that he would need to come up with his own solution.
That’s when he enlisted Maximillian Lawrence, an electronics guru and maker at DM+D. “When I saw Wynn’s seriousness, I knew I wasn’t just signing up for some senior project,” says Lawrence.
After unsuccessfully attempting to acquire funding from several organizations, Geary’s fortunes changed when he received a $500 grant from SLA for his project. He and Lawrence purchased a bunch of sensors, and with that, they were on the path to building a smart beehive.
Temperature, humidity, sound and light sensors are all part of the monitoring system, as is a camera located in the brood chamber, the part of the hive designated by the bees for laying eggs. Lawrence fabricated the sensor and camera kits himself at DM+D, and he plans to install “smell” sensors that will measure a host of chemical compounds like methane and carbon monoxide. When it’s completed later this year, the smart hive’s monitoring system will be among the most sophisticated in the world, and Geary finally will be able to figure out where his bees go by analyzing what type of pollen is in the honey.
Still, both Geary and Lawrence say they’re taking an exploratory approach rather than trying to solve a particular problem like colony collapse disorder. Lawrence is bullish about the potential impacts, but cautionary about setting lofty expectations. “The positive ramifications of this project are much bigger than something like using sensors to count cars on the road,” says Lawrence. “There are many applications, but let’s get it working first.”
Currently, the camera and sensor data feed to a computer, but ultimately, they will
livestream to a website. Geary says that once the livestream is running, viewers will be able to watch the bees’ lifecycle, and he’ll be able to monitor the colony’s health while he’s away at the Rhode Island School of Design next year.
One of Geary’s goals for the hive is to display the sensor data and video on a website that makes it easy for people to understand how bee colonies work. To help with that, he and Lawrence are working with Mitchell Johnson, a University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate with expertise in data visualization. “I’m a visual person,” says Geary, “and launching a website with cool, visualized bee data is very exciting to me.”
Geary feels lucky so many people have been willing to help him. “At DM+D and the [University City] Science Center, I have the opportunity to partner with so many people that really know their stuff to make this happen,” he says.
“There’s no way to do this without collaboration,” concurs Lawrence, “unless you happen to be into bees and electronics and have audio, video, data visualization and mass spectrometry expertise all at the same time.” But he quickly adds, “Wynn’s vision and experience with the bees is the most important part.”
As for Geary, he’s just excited to finally monitor what’s happening in the hive without having to use centuries-old monitoring techniques that disturb the bees. “Being able to see things that I imagined happening in the hive as they’re actually happening is just amazing.”