How Big Data Is Helping to Save the Bees

two bees on a pink and purple flower

Over the past couple of decades, something strange has been happening to the global bee population. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Since 1998, individual beekeepers have been reporting unusual weakening and mortality in colonies … Mortality has been extremely high when activity is resumed at the end of winter and beginning of spring.”

The decline of honey bees in particular is of great concern, as it is believed that they pollinate up to 80% of all plants and crops worldwide. In fact, Greenpeace has reported that a single colony can pollinate around 300 million flowers, fruits, vegetables and nuts in just one day. These crops equate to about 90% of the world’s nutritional intake, and we could stand to lose a significant amount of our food supply if we don’t act quickly.

So, what can we do? We know now that the main causes of the startling decline are industrial agriculture, climate change, parasites and pathogens – but just having that information simply isn’t enough. In order to identify reliable ways of preventing further decline, we need to keep a closer eye on our bees.

And that’s where big data technology comes in.

B-GOOD, a project developed by 17 partners from 13 European countries, is on a mission to “pave the way towards healthy and sustainable beekeeping within the European Union.” The project aims to achieve this by collating vast amounts of data “from within and around beehives as well as wider socio-economic and ecological conditions,” which they will use to broaden their understanding of the issue and provide appropriate guidance for beekeepers.

B-GOOD has committed itself to creating new technology and applying large-scale testing in order to accumulate large data sets on a number of species of bees. The project will then “perform risk assessments according to a novel Health Status Index (HSI)”, and use machine learning to identify relationships between the HSI and colony state.

In the short term, this will permit a better understanding of what is causing such a sharp drop in bee numbers. More importantly, in the long term, it should help identify preventative methods for further decline.

One of the ways B-GOOD is collecting data is with the help of BEEP, an online system for beekeepers. The purpose of BEEP is twofold: firstly, it helps beekeepers to keep track of their hives (it is essentially a digital upgrade of paper-based record keeping), and, secondly, it helps scientists by sharing the hive data for research purposes. BEEP has been online for two years now, meaning there is already a substantial volume of data for B-GOOD to tap into.

As ambitious as this project may seem, it’s not actually the first of its kind. Back in 2016, Intel teamed up with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in order to conduct a study into bee activity – a feat they achieved by fitting almost 10,000 bees with tiny RFID ‘backpacks’.

According to Intel, “The RFID chips tracked the bees and their behaviour, while an Intel Edison board installed inside the hive gathered a wealth of other valuable data, including: temperature, humidity, water pollution, wind velocity, even the rate and volume of honey production.”

Lower tech initiatives have also been launched; last year, Friends of the Earth encouraged people in the UK to get involved in The Great British Bee Count, which saw almost 24,000 bee lovers turn out to record bee sightings. Almost half a million bees were tracked, and 50 different species were identified.

B-GOOD is still making progress at the time of publication, and just recently announced their sister project, ‘INSIGNIA‘.

“INSIGNIA is an innovative project which will build on the wide range of expertise of the applicants developed during previous projects such as the COLOSS ‘CSI Pollen project’,” B-GOOD explains. “INSIGNIA involves the development of a protocol for a citizen science monitoring programme using beekeepers to collect biweekly pollen samples from honeybee colonies for analysis for pesticide residues and botanical origin.”

All of these initiatives are helping to accumulate vast amounts of information to be analysed by data scientists and artificial intelligence, the results of which will eventually filter back into the natural world around us. We may still be a way off solving the bee crisis but, with the help of big data, we’re at least making progress.