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Professor receives grant to study honeybee population

Posted on August 02, 2016

As bees in Michigan start producing honey this month, researchers at Grand Valley State University are studying honeybees across the country to understand why its population is declining. The project is funded by a portion of a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The four-year, $200,000 study at Grand Valley, led by Jonathan Engelsma, professor of computing, will focus on collecting data from honeybee colonies using a variety of techniques and tools, including a website developed by Engelsma and a team of students. The website tracks activity — in real time — at apiaries across the country. 

"About a third of what we eat is dependent on honeybees," said Engelsma. "Honeybees pollinate much of the food in our diet, but the honeybee population has been declining for a number of years. This research seeks to understand why and find solutions." 

The website (hivescales.beeinformed.org), a project that began in 2012, houses information captured by electronic scales that are installed underneath more than 150 live honeybee colonies across the country, including one in Hawaii and two at Grand Valley. The scales capture weight, humidity and temperature about every 15 minutes. The website allows anyone to remotely monitor the activity at a specific apiary and observe data such as weight increases and drops in hives.

"Every morning when the sun warms a hive, we'll see the weight drop about four pounds as bees leave to find nectar and pollen. Around mid-day, we see the weight increase as bees bring nectar and pollen loads back to the hive. Observing weight increases and decreases can reveal a lot of information about a hive; it's healthy for a colony to gain weight, not lose it," said Engelsma. 

Engelsma said information from the scales will give his team the ability to do analysis to establish best practices for managing honeybee colonies. He said the next phase of the study is to turn the data into something that's actionable by providing tools and resources for people in the beekeeping community. 

Anyone can participate in the study, including commercial beekeepers, hobby beekeepers and researchers. Engelsma, a hobby beekeeper who manages hives at various locations in West Michigan, hopes to eventually have scales operating in each county in the U.S.

The research supports the Bee Informed Partnership, an organization formed to research the mortality of honeybees. The USDA-funded study also includes the University of Maryland, University of Minnesota, North Carolina State University, Appalachian State University, University of Tennessee and Oregon State University. 

Engelsma is working on an additional project with Anne Marie Fauvel, affiliate faculty of liberal studies, and a group of students. They are developing a mobile app, called PollenCollect, that will help beekeepers track bee forage around the state of Michigan. 

For more information, visit www.beeinformed.org