What will spying sensors reveal about the secret world of bees? The latest buzz from the Open Source Beehives project, a network of citizen scientists tracking bee decline, is coming this spring: sensor kits to track the health of bees.

By connecting passive beehives to the web, Open Source Beehives hopes they will become as busy as the bees inhabiting them. Beehives will become "active, data-generating habitats for a superorganism," says Tristan Copley Smith, co-founder of the project.

"Bees are one of the most complex and industrious species on the planet. Embedding sensors at this kind of scale and having those sensors offloading data in real time…could turn out insights into how these creatures operate and what affects them," he says.

Bees, which pollinate one-third of our food, could use the help. Falling bee populations are an acute problem in many industrialized countries.

Tristan Copley Smith displays bees

Tristan Copley Smith harvests honey from his open-source hive. (Open Source Beehives)

Already, test sensors have taken basic measurements such as internal and external hive temperature, humidity and location using GPS devices. 

The version for public release will include audio sensors to monitor the hive’s status. By lending an ear to the frequencies of bee wings, Open Source Beehives hopes to capture what’s going on inside the hive.

"When the colony is preparing to swarm, the queen makes a ‘piping’ sound," wrote Smith in an email. "It is likely frequencies change due to…different hive events, so this will be a great way to grow associations…between hive events and audio," he wrote.

Open Source Beehives says it will add an infrared bee counter, a sensor to detect levels of pesticides, and a web camera to spy on bee behaviour.

Since its crowdfunding campaign raised more than $63,000 US in March and April 2014, the project has invested in specialized sensors that will transmit data from a smart board placed inside its beehives to an online platform.

So far, the team of beekeepers, designers, engineers and open-source advocates, based in Denver and Barcelona, has made available two open-source beehive designs that anyone can download free and load onto a CNC router, a type of computer-controlled cutting machine. The machine automatically cuts out the design from a single sheet of plywood in less than an hour.

Open Source Beehives estimates that 100 to 200 of its hives have been made around the world, with more than 1,000 designs downloaded during its crowd-funding campaign.

Understanding the bee numbers

One goal of the project is to provide an easy entry into global bee conservation. The numbers can be a bit hard to understand.

Overall, for example, Statistics Canada says this country's honey bee population grew to 694,217 hives in 2014, 4 per cent higher than in 2013. Over the same period honey production rose by 6.6 per cent to 81.6 million pounds.​

But in Canada last year, about 58 per cent of Ontario bees died during an especially long winter, while other provinces lost on average about 19 per cent of their swarms, according to a survey by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists

This apparent contradiction is explained by two facts: The Statistics Canada figures show aggregate numbers, while provinces are affected unequally by bee losses. Also, bee losses are greatest over winter.

Agriculture Canada cites a combination of factors affecting bee health, including exposure to pesticides, parasitic varroa mites and nosema disease, poor queen quality, hive management practices, and the weather.

U.S. winter losses over 2006-2011 averaged 33 per cent each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns, "If losses continue at the 33 percent level, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry."

Europe faces a similar problem.

No one really knows why bees are dying in such large numbers, but several jurisdictions have taken preventive measures against neonicotinoids, a group of systemic insecticides used in agriculture to protect crops from insect pests.

An international Task Force on Systemic Pesticides recently found that neonics pose a serious risk of harm to pollinators, with bees at jeopardy from high exposure through air and plants and from medium exposure through water.

In Ontario bee deaths have been linked to exposure to neonicotinoids. In response, the province announced a plan in November 2014 to sharply restrict the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds by 2017.

Other bee-killers

However, neonicotinoids may not be the sole culprit.

Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, a beekeeping industry organization, and co-chair of a national roundtable on bee health, says that losses vary from province to province and region to region each year because there is no single cause of bee losses.

"There is a problem and improvements can be made, [but] it is not as dire as it is made out to be," says Scarlett.

Meanwhile, as the machinery become more abundant and cheaper, open source beehives are more accessible.

A CNC router is available in woodshops, woodworking businesses, and digital Fab Labs and Makerspaces. The FabHub and The Maker Map offer directories.

The cost to manufacture an open source beehive is between $300 to $400 for the plywood and use of fabrication lab facilities.

Stephan van Heerden, an IT consultant in Toronto and a bee hobbyist since 1992, sees potential in open source beehives but wants a cheaper version.

The project’s pre-assembled hives are $350 US plus shipping compared to the cost of building your own non-open-source beehive, which would be between $200 and $300.

"It is 100 per cent feasible, yes…but the price has to come down," says van Heerden. "If [the] cost…isn’t prohibitive, I’d like to get back into it."

Open Source Beehives plans to make an Eco Hive available later this year, at $250 US plus shipping, as part of its new open source urban farming project called Aker.

Technology to solve social problems

David Neumann, an interactive media and web design professor at Humber College, contributed $600 US toward the project’s crowd-funding campaign. Neumann plans to set up his hive this spring in his dad’s backyard near Kitchener-Waterloo.

Open Source Beehives appealed to Neumann’s interest in using technological tools to tackle social problems.

"I look for solutions…What I enjoy about open source is that you have the ability to adapt [the design], create it, modify it, and remix it to change things. You can really customize things the way you want," says Neumann.

Neumann sees promise in using a sensor to get information on bee health. "If you can gather data from all over the place, you have a more likely chance of having context…and…potentially to solve the problems."

Others are skeptical. According to Tibor Szabo, president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association, the sensors are overly simplistic.

"Neonics kill in parts per trillion," says Szabo. "For testing you need a high-tech lab for thermal imaging and to put 70 advanced thermometers in beehives. [Open Source Beehives] measurements need to be more specific," he says.

But Neumann is convinced that more data will advance the science, even if the contribution is something as simple as helping reframe the question. "It may not provide…more answers," says Neumann. "But…it’ll provide… more questions that lead to better answers. It might help you redefine the question."

Marcel Sangsari is a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.