Technology is the bane and the spine of modern life – think hospitals, communications, air travel – everywhere you look, technology is being utilised to improve the system for which it is designed.  Bruce Trevarthen is a tech wizard who has combined his love of technology with his understanding of production and materials handling to come up with ModuSense, a clever remote apicultural monitoring system which is being used to substantially increase commercial honey yields while delivering better care to bees. This is a hive monitoring system which includes hardware, software and connectivity.

A beekeeper himself, Bruce understands bees and apiculture, particularly the difficulties and expense of commercial honey farming, which is often remotely situated. Producers of mānuka honey and the better quality mānuka and bush flora blend require substantial feed for their bees, which do all the work. Most good mānuka stands are in remote locations and often at the bottom of a valley with no roads or tracks, necessitating the use of helicopters to establish apiaries initially, and later to harvest the honey.

Up until Trevarthen’s recently launched industrial scale apicultural monitoring innovation, ModuSense, commercial operators chose their sites, placed their hives and flew out again, essentially blind as to whether the location would sustain their bees sufficiently well to produce a good yield, and to the condition of the bees themselves. With years of experience commercial beekeepers get better at choosing sites, but industry growth means not everyone has years of experience, or a pocket deep enough to keep a helicopter flying in and out of an apiary to determine the condition of the colonies. Continually inspecting hives is detrimental to bee health since it takes bees 24-48 hours to resume normal behaviour after an intervention.

ModuSense resolves the ‘blindness’ inherent with new sites and bees’ condition at those sites, while simultaneously providing accurate data to allow optimum timing of the harvest.

“Now,” says Trevarthen, “apiarists can watch precisely what is happening and determine from outputs when to go in. If the weight is continuing to go up, they might delay going in.”

An increase of 1% in mānuka yield equates to a lot of money. New Zealand apiarists harvested 20,000 tonnes of honey last year, though the bulk was not mānuka.

“One operator using ModuSense technology increased their yield by five tonnes,” said Trevarthen. “The data suggested the hives were still on the flow (bees still collecting nectar) and continuing to gain weight. They harvested an increase of five tonnes over previous years, simply by having the data which meant they delayed the helicoptered retrieval.”

The idea for ModuSense grew out Trevarthen’s interest in raising productivity in primary industries by applying IOT (Internet of Things) technology and indeed ModuSense has relevance across much of the primary industry sector. For instance, virtually all primary industries require the monitoring of liquid levels in holding tanks whether it’s water, fuel, or even cattle troughs.

Trevarthen’s technological interests began as a seven year old pulling electronics apart and reassembling them in different ways. As a teen, that morphed into computer technology. Having become involved in product development in the Middle East as an adult, he moved into manufacturing and automation, accelerating his knowledge and providing experience in large-scale industrial environments. That’s the experience built into ModuSense technology.

ModuSense hardware is robust – made from stainless steel for industrial use. It’s designed for commercial operators and harsh conditions including helicopters, forklifts, and bad weather. There are no cables, and no requirement for configuration, obviating the need to remove gloves to push buttons – a serious advantage in the field.

Generally, monitoring data from one or two pallets per apiary delivers sufficient information to indicate how the entire apiary is going.

Inside the hive, ModuSense records temperature data accurate to .25 of a degree, as well as humidity, and acoustic information. The acoustics sensor provides information about colony health and changes within the hive. Under the hive, a scale accurate to within 200gms sends information about the developing yield. Making sense of the collected data relies on trending – over time the apiarist recognises what is normal and what isn’t.

Officially launched on 11 March, ModuSense has keen users already, most having been involved in field trials. Comvita is a field trial partner and early adopter of the technology.

New Zealand has 879,758 registered beehives (August 2018), the great majority of which are managed by commercial operators. For these operators the yield gains over Dec/Jan/Feb delivered by this technology promise to be breath-taking, but some of this gain will come from reduction in colony losses.

An average loss of almost 10% of bees is recorded almost every season, much of which Trevarthen says is entirely preventable. The leading causes of colony loss are queen problems (35.5%), suspected varroa (19.5%), wasps (12.1%) and suspected starvation (12.1%).  ModuSense detects changes in a colony which can flag impending losses. It also monitors over winter when fewer hive opens are optimal for bee survival which lose warmth each time the hive is breached.

Electronic beehive monitoring is not new. Until now it has been aimed more towards the hobbyist, but it hasn’t scaled well into the industrial arena because it isn’t sufficiently robust Trevarthen says.

The tech sounds good, and field trials suggest it’s enormously effective, but what’s it going to cost you to run ModuSense?

Not that much if you’re a commercial apiarist. A minimum 400+ hives makes the system financially viable and improvements in yield should have the hardware paid for within a year. The ongoing costs include data between $50 -$80 per month depending on how much data is being collected via satellite. A mobile network is cheaper and with the new IoT-specific long range networks such as LTE CAT-M1, satellite requirement and associated costs disappear.

For Bruce Trevarthen tech stuff is his first love but he was surprised to find himself, on the back of the apicultural technology he was building, caught up with bees, and honey. “As we got further into it we fell in love with honey and the bees. They’re fascinating creatures…you can’t help but want to immerse yourself in looking after some,” he says. “And that’s how I became a beekeeper too.”

Copyright Theresa Sjoquist

Photos supplied by ModuSense

First Published Valley Voice – May 2019