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5 Bees program tests the potential of hive monitoring technologies

Beekeepers have put thermal cameras and business management packages to the test to determine whether streamlining operations and reducing the need to manually check hives will save them time and money.

Fourteen beekeepers trialled the technologies in 2023 as part of the ‘5 Bees’ program – Building Better Beekeeping Businesses after Bushfire. The three-year program was established in February 2021 by the Wheen Bee Foundation’s Bushfire Rebuild and Recovery Fund to support commercial beekeepers to adopt technologies that could transform and improve business efficiency.

The 5 Bees program received support from AgriFutures Australia’s Producer Technology Uptake Program (PTUP), which aims to increase the use of technology and innovative solutions on farms across Australia, as well as the Anthony Costa Foundation and the NSW Government’s Bushfire Industry Recovery Package – Sector Development Grant initiative.

The 5 Bees program was delivered by Meridian Agriculture Director Dr Mike Stephens, who worked with beekeepers from five states in two groups. One group trialled thermal cameras, while the other trialled business management packages and IT solutions for business challenges.

“The 5 Bees program is based on peer-to-peer, experiential learning, so everyone has something to contribute. The groups chose the systems they wanted to trial, and are sharing their experiences and insights as the program progresses,” Mike said.

Thermal cameras identify hive hotspots

The trial of thermal cameras showed there is a role for this technology in beekeeping and it doesn’t always require significant financial investment.

“We found the value of the thermal camera was in inverse proportion to its price. The cheapest camera was actually the most convenient to use,” Mike said.

“Thermal cameras are really useful to see whether a hive is dead or the bees have flown away, so if you have a few hundred hives, you can very quickly assess whether there is a real problem. But the cameras had limited use in providing other useful information.”

Business management packages for a range of skills

The second group of beekeepers trialled tools to support business management and solve business challenges.

“At the start, some participants didn’t have much experience running their own business, so they weren’t aware of the systems needed to manage a business. Then there were others who had thousands of hives and quite sophisticated business management practices,” Mike said.

“The beekeepers found the business management packages incredibly useful. It depended on their level of computer literacy, but they’ve all gained something from the use of these technologies.”

The group also tested systems that help beekeepers track the provenance of honey and a hand-held printer that produces barcodes for hive identification. An IT product that measures the weight of hives to indicate honey flow proved beneficial for beekeepers with apiaries in remote locations.

“Keeping track of individual boxes used for pollination services is difficult when hives are moved on an orchard or farm. This trial allowed beekeepers to think about what an ideal system would look like,” Mike said.

He said the program inspired beekeepers to think differently about their business.

“The participants are now thinking more about things like the number of kilometres they have to drive to produce a litre of honey, the number of people they need to employ to manage the hives, and so on.”

Mike said the program had benefits beyond the beekeeping industry.

“There’s a major challenge for industry to have enough pollinators and enough beekeepers to provide pollination services to the agriculture industry,” he said.

“The need for more beekeepers for pollination is exponential based on future demand, and at the same time the average age of beekeepers is rising. Programs such as 5 Bees can assist beekeepers to share their knowledge and keep them in the industry.”

AgriFutures Australia Innovation Manager Ulicia Raufers said the trial was a great example of how PTUP supports producers to overcome their barriers to technology adoption and build their confidence to utilise and adopt technologies in their operations.

“The opportunity for producers to be able to trial new technologies and share their learnings with their peers is an integral part of the adoption journey, which is what we’ve seen with the 5 Bees project,” she said.

For more information on the Producer Technology Uptake Program, visit the AgriFutures Australia website.

This article is from the AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program 2024 Research, Development and Extension Snapshot. To read the full report visit the AgriFutures Australia website.

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