“New Technologies and Beekeeping”
Bee Culture (November 2004), Vol. 132 (11): 47-49


Malcolm T. Sanford

Courses often stress that beekeeping technology is quite old.  That’s true if you look at the development of most of the inventions employed in apiculture, including smokers, hives and other paraphernalia.  Only one, instrumental insemination, is a child of the 20th Century.  Looking outside of beekeeping, however, one can find several technologies developed in the 1900s that beekeepers have used to make their outfits more efficient.  One example is modern advances in sugar chemistry (enzymes) culminating in production of high fructose corn syrup, now used to feed bees.1  Without advances in corn growing, coupled with increased use in the human food chain, however, there would not be enough demand for this product and it probably could not be employed in beekeeping.  Other ancillary technological help has come from improvements in moving colonies long distances (tractors, trailers, interstate highways) or from bee yard to truck (forklifts).  Finally, let’s not forget advances in food preparation (stainless steel extractors) and packaging (plastic bottles and portion packs).

Now a new suite of technologies is coming out of the use of modern computers, which themselves are the result of research in solid-state transistors that are the basis for chip technology.  Three are closely related: genomics (study of genes), nanotechnology (use of very small objects or tools) and robotics (automatic and replicating technology).  Two others are geographic positioning systems (GPS), from which has come the term “precision agriculture,” and artificial intelligence (systems that exhibit characteristics associated with human intelligence).

Genomics (the study of genes in organisms), which includes sequencing and genetic engineering has many potential uses in beekeeping2.  I published an article on this topic and what it is expected to produce in the April 2003 Bee Culture.3  This article listed possible information gleaned from the bee genetic code and what it might mean for humans with respect to novel antibiotics, infectious diseases (bees have them too), bee venom and allergic disease, nutrition, mental health, biosensors, x chromosome diseases, cognition and human gerontology. 

Also affecting honey bees are experiments and trials in plant genetic engineering.  Since bees are vegetarians, they rely totally on plant food (nectar and pollen) and this can be affected by shifts in the plants’ genetic makeup.  There is much controversy over the use of these plants, known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs.  I wrote a comprehensive article on how GMOs relate to bees in 2003.4  The marking and tracking of genetic components in plants may be a good example of potential the use of nanotechnology.

According to a Green Peace report, the general definition of nanotechnology is manipulation, observation and measurement at a scale of less than 100 nanometers (one nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter).5  There are a host of possibilities that have been suggested using this technology.  Unfortunately, the majority of them appear to be involved in military applications.  The report concludes:  “there is a flow of public money into a great number of techniques and relevant academic disciplines in what has been described as an ‘arms race’ between governments.  Nanotechnology is really a convenient label for a variety of scientific disciplines which serves as a way of getting money from Government budgets.”. 

Robotics is the use of machines that can do things as well as or even better than humans.  Many automobiles are assembled by robots in factories today.  The newest interest is in robots that can manufacture and deliver substances even down to molecular level.  A classical example is delivery of drugs in humans through the blood stream using extremely small robots, otherwise known as “nanobots.”

Nanotechnology, therefore, is often closely associated with robotics.  There are very few applications that this author knows about with reference to honey bees at the present time, but bees themselves may be considered the first (although pretty large in comparison) “nanobots,” or minute robots.   One application is the use of bees to deliver plant treatments during their pollinating activities.  Trichoderma harzanium 1295-22, commonly known as T22, employed in treating strawberry plants for a mold, called Botrytis, is being spread by honey bees.6  Pollination of some crops by bees instead of by human hand is also in this category.

In the future “nanobot” pesticide applications might harm bees (pesticide particles too small to detect yet extremely lethal) as the development of encapsulated pesticides did in the 1980s (Penncap-M®).  On the other hand, the technology might also protect them by targeting directly parts of plants that bees don’t contact.

Related to this is research on identifying small objects through the use of radio frequency identification (RFID).  This is a more powerful technology than bar codes because it is “smarter”.  The possibility of marking products and organisms and then monitoring their movements by remote readers (see remote sensing elsewhere in this paper) is important in many fields, especially retail stores and increasingly, health care.  Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense are big players.7

An enterprising pollination contractor who had experience with stolen beehives has also seen the advantage of RFID technology.  Bakersfield beekeeper Joe Traynor decided to do something.  After seeing a TV program on RFID, he contacted AVID, Inc., a Norco, California-based RFID company best known for companion animal and wildlife identification.  Using a proprietary, 125 kHz preprogrammed tags concealed inside each of his hives, Traynor can now provide police with positive proof of ownership should his hives be stolen.  And, if police have any question about the validity of Traynor's claim to ownership, they can call AVID who will confirm the serial numbers of all the tags assigned to Traynor.  Tags are embedded in the frame in such a way that to remove the tag would mean damaging the hive.”8


Perhaps the most engaging project using RFIDs is that directed by Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk at the University of Montana.  “In a field test in May (1999), several bees were outfitted with the tags, each weighing less than a grain of rice.  Pacific Northwest engineers determined that the radio-frequency fields didn’t interfere with bee activity, but that the tags should be made smaller to lessen the impact on bees’ flight. Sokymat of Switzerland and its U.S. representative, North American Research Inc., are working to reduce the size of the tags.9   Taking this research one step further, Dr. Bromenshenk is now working with the Sandia National Laboratories on training bees to find what has been called the earth’s worst form of pollution, plastic land mines.10  From these studies, a company has been formed to take advantage of the commercial possibilites called Bee Alert Technology, Inc.11.  The possibilities beekeepers might use RFIDs for are many, including inventory control down to the frame level and tracking bee products through the collection and preparation processes.  Tracing food products to their source is becoming increasingly important in the modern food production environment.12


Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) are based on “a ‘constellation’ of 24 well-spaced satellites that orbit the Earth and make it possible for people with ground receivers to pinpoint their geographic location. The location accuracy is anywhere from 1 to 100 meters depending on the type of equipment used.”13   This is already in use for many agricultural applications, called Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM).  It “refers to a developing agricultural management system that promotes variable management practices within a field according to site or soil conditions.  While this technology is only a few years old, various names have been used to describe the concept: farming by soil; farming soil, not fields; farming by the foot; spatially prescriptive farming; computer aided farming; farming by computer; farming by satellite; high-tech sustainable agriculture; soil-specific crop management; site-specific farming; and precision farming.”14


Important GPS applications for beekeeping might include, determining the position of outyards or even single colonies, and monitoring the relationship between colony location and surrounding vegetation.  Determining the quality (drought stress, blossoming, nectar secretion) of the vegetation through an allied technology called “remote sensing” is also possible.  This is defined in part as “The practice of data collection in the wavelengths from ultraviolet to radio regions.”  Infrared photography is already in use to determine stress on plants caused by drought or disease.15 


Artificial intelligence is often linked to robotics, as anyone who’s seen the Robocob movies can attest.16  A major laboratory in this area is the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT).17  “Artificial Intelligence (AI) is defined as “a branch of Science, which deals with helping machines find solutions to complex problems in a more human-like fashion.  This generally involves borrowing characteristics from human intelligence, and applying them as algorithms in a computer friendly way.  A more or less flexible or efficient approach can be taken depending on the requirements established, which influences how artificial the intelligent behaviour appears.  AI is generally associated with Computer Science, but it has many important links with other fields such as Maths, Psychology, Cognition, Biology and Philosophy, among many others. Our ability to combine knowledge from all these fields will ultimately benefit our progress in the quest of creating an intelligent artificial being.”18


Artificial intelligence in the beekeeping field exists mostly as a blending of basic information with computer manipulation.  One is a program called BeeAware.  According the web site advertising this product, “A unique feature of BeeAware is an interactive diagnostic module designed to assist beekeepers in identifying unknown problems in their colonies. This module was recently rebuilt using NetWeaver, an efficient knowledge base construction, maintenance, documentation, and debugging tool written at Penn State University.”19


Several software packages are available form the USDA Carl Hayen Tucson, Arizona bee laboratory.  These include VarroaPop, which simulates the growth of Varroa mite populations in honey bee colonies. “The program demonstrates how Varroa mites influence colony population growth throughout the year. You can change many factors through the menus in the model such as the initial population size, queen egg laying potential, and mite reproduction rates, so you can see how these factors influence both colony and mite population growth.”  Another is Redapol, “a computer-based model simulating the interactions of weather, bloom and honey bee foraging activity that culminate in 'Delicious' apple fruit-set. The model predicts the percentage of blossoms setting fruit based upon weather conditions, orchard design, tree characteristics, and honey bee colonies per hectare.”20


There are beekeeping databases that also might be the basic building blocks for other artificial intelligence applications.21  An innovative example is a web site “created to help beekeepers keep track of their beehives by generating a convenient logbook of all their beekeeping activity.  It's simple form entry allows you to see all your hives at a glance and to quickly update your records after a trip to your apiary.”  There a likely to be others as time goes on.”22


New techologies have a surprising power to examine and manipulate in environments where humans have never gone before.  As such they can be extremely helpful.  However, there are also risks, especially in the biological realm.  Once a biological system is changed, there is little way of predicting where it might go.  Worse, there may be no way to change the system back to its original state.  What I said in my article on the cracking the honey bee genetic code already referenced above bears repeating when in comes to employing any new technology: “In general, approach it with more humility than hubris.”



1.      Sanford, M.T. 2004. “High Fructose Corn Syrup; A Revolution in the Making.” Bee Culture, Parts I (June, pp. 19-21) and II (July. pp. 21-23).

2.      Beenome Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.barc.usda.gov/psi/brl/beenome.html>.  See also the Purdue University’Site <http://www.entm.purdue.edu/Entomology/research/bee/GENOMICS.HTM>

3.      Sanford, M.T.  2003.  “Cracking the Honey Bee’s Genetic Code,” Bee Culture, April, pp. 19-21.

4.      Apiservices Web Site, “The World of GMOs and How it Relates to Beekeeping,” accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.apiservices.com/articles/us/gmo.htm>.

5.      Greenpeace Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/MultimediaFiles/Live/FullReport/5886.pdf>.

6.      Cornell University Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pubs/press/1999/bees.html>.

7.      Printronix Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.printronix.com/public/productsolutions/detail_rfid_Product.aspx>.

8.      Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.aimglobal.org/technologies/rfid/resources/articles/apr04/0404RFIDBees.htm >

9.      Mindfully.Org Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.mindfully.org/Technology/Bee-Landmine-DetectionFall99.htm>

10.  Sandia Labs Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.sandia.gov/media/minebees.htm>

11.  Small Business Development Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://sbir.state.mt.us/BRD_SBIR_News-May_04.asp>.

12.  Forrester.Com Web Site, subscription required, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.forrester.com/ER/Research/Brief/Excerpt/0,1317,33436,00.html>.

13.  U.S. National Park Service Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www2.cr.nps.gov/gis/gps.htm>.

14.  Precision Agriculture Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.precisionag.org/html/introduction.html>.

15.  Infrared Training Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004<http://www.infraredtraining.com/community/boards/thread/135/>.

16.  Robocop Movie Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100502/>.

17.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004  <http://www.ai.mit.edu/>.

18.  Artificial Intelligence Depot Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004

19.  MAAREC Web Site (BeeAware), accessed July 22, 2004 <http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/beeaware/>.

20.  Tucson Bee Lab Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://gears.tucson.ars.ag.gov/soft/index.html>.

21.  Sanford, M.T. 2003. Databases and Beekeeping, Bee Culture, March, pp. 17-18>

22.  My Beehives.com Web Site, accessed July 22, 2004 <http://mybeehives.com/>.