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Western Digital Innovation Spotlight: Electric Bee Hive Project

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WDLabs is proud to engage with makers and innovators creating projects of their own. As a part of this outreach, WDLabs provided the Honey Bee Gardens Hive Project with free WD PiDrive 314GB test samples. Take a look to find out more about this electric bee hive project!
Q. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Please tell us your names and where you’re from. 
A. David Ammons: My name is David Ammons. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I’m a biologist (Masters) and a biochemist (Ph.D.) by training. I’m currently retired, but I’ve been working with honey bees as a hobby.
Graham Toal: And I’m Graham Toal. I’m originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, and for the last 20 years, I’ve lived in Edinburg, Texas. I’m 55 years old and recently retired, but I’ve been a computer programmer since I was 14. It’s mainly in the last couple of years that I’ve branched out from programming and into hardware, primarily due to the maker movement.

Q. Please tell us about your current maker project.
A. DA: We’re making an electric bee hive colony. I’m responsible for the biology side of our project, including the care and maintenance of our bee hives. Our main goal is to provide an affordable means of collecting real-time data from a hive that tracks colony size, disease, honey production, etc. An affordable way to monitor a bee colony would improve both bee management and scientific research.
GT: I handle the hardware side of designing a cost-effective monitor for David’s hives. I’m enjoying learning how to drive sensors from the Raspberry Pi. Who knew making a box reliable enough to be left outdoors unattended would have so many challenging problems?

Q. Is there a problem you’re trying to solve?
A. DA: Bees pollinate plants around the world. Statistically speaking, every third bite of food you eat is the result of cross-pollination from bees. In fact, pollination is so critical to agriculture, farmers order hives by the hundreds and have them shipped to their farms to pollinate crops. But for some unknown reason (commonly over winter months), entire bee colonies are disappearing. This is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

When you open CCD hives, they often look great, full of honey, and completely normal. Except for bees. Bees aren’t found anywhere, not even the dead ones. It reminds me of the stories about the abandoned ships found in the Bermuda Triangle: Food on the table, every indication of normal life, but no people. It’s been suggested that pesticides, diseases, or several other factors could be responsible, but the truth is we don’t really know what’s going on.

It’s not possible to watch both inside and outside a bee hive 24/7, but how great would it be if there was an electric hive where we could see what actually goes on before and during a CCD event? You’d be able to check the status of your hives, continuously, by doing nothing more than looking at a computer screen. You could track a hive’s population, honey production, whether the bees have a mite infestation, and so much more. Simply put, it’s time to join the rest of agriculture and bring bee keeping into the 21st century.
GT: Another goal is to get an electronic bee hive system like ours widely deployed so we can crowd source information about hive behavior. This feedback should help us and beekeepers around the world improve their hive management.

Q. How do you approach this project from a research perspective?
A. GT: Before we started building anything, we did extensive online research to see what was already available. We found a lot of projects similar to ours, but most would concentrate on a small aspect of the problem. We couldn’t find any one project that took a broad overview of the whole area. Even if we don’t end up being the people who implement it, we intend to create a plan for a networked system of low-cost monitors that will assist both research and commercial bee keeping. 
DA: For biological issues, we mostly take advantage of the scientific literature. However, for engineering issues, we are largely guided by personal blogs/web pages where other individuals working on automated hive monitoring are posting their work. We try to work in conjunction with the larger community and build on the growing body of knowledge being generated on automated bee hive monitoring.

Q. How does the Raspberry Pi help you with this project?
A. GT: The Raspberry Pi has been the key component in this project! Using a traditional computer would have been too expensive. Using a PIC microcontroller such as PIC® or Arduino would have been underpowered, and the physical size of the Pi and the accessibility of it at the electrical level has just been fantastic in making this something we can easily install on a bee hive.

Q. How does WDLabs help you solve problems?
A. GT: Almost by accident, we picked up a Pi Drive 314GB on Pi Day and it turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. We had a serious problem with storing continuous video from a Raspberry Pi camera. In regard to the workload of 24x7 video recording, out of all the solutions we looked at (including SD cards, flash drives, and SSD drives), the WD PiDrive has performed the best for us.With some software tweaking, we’re now able to save all the data generated by our hive monitor while keeping power consumption low. Our system requires low power consumption because (we’re hoping) it will eventually be powered by solar panels.

Q. How did the maker community help you?
A. GT: We’ve found lots of people online who’ve been able to help us with advice and technical information from many areas. The Raspberry Pi online community introduced us to engineers from WDLabs, who gave us a lot of help in solving our storage problems.

Q. What’s the most useful piece of feedback you received from the maker community for this project?
A. GT: One of the bee keepers we spoke with said monitoring the weight of the hive was essential. We weren’t considering weight sensors at the time; we thought it would require a bulky and expensive scale. After checking out the various technologies available nowadays, we’ve found a low-cost solution we’ll be testing in our next development phase.
Q. What inspired you to become an active member of the maker community?
A. GT: I’ve always been a maker and a creator. We used to build DIY electronics and radio hams, but now we’re makers in a much larger community and it’s much easier to find people with multi-discipline expertise. Problems like these may take both programming expertise and skill at woodworking.

Q. Do you have any other maker projects?
A. DA: I still perform “wet lab” research at the local university, mostly in the fields of cancer and insecticidal toxins. I’m also heavily involved in a software project with other researchers at our local university, where I assist with both software design and programming.
GT: I have too many projects to mention! You can check out some of my other projects on my page at Instructables.com.

Q. Do you have any engineering experience?
A. GT: I have a computer science degree from Edinburgh University. I have a bit of electronics experience, and I did some custom integrated circuit design while working for Acorn Computers (designers of the ARM chip), but I’m primarily a software person.

Q. What do you do for a living?
A. DA: Although retired, I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching at universities and performing research. I feel fortunate to expand my love for research to include the honey bee and the critical role it plays in crop pollination and food security.
GT: I was initially a programmer, and I ran an ISP for several years. More recently, I was the information security manager at our local university. Before retirement, I was the technical liaison at the university between the academics and the IT department which was very educational. I was frequently asked to find cost-effective technical solutions for research projects, giving me a lot of opportunities to keep up with the latest technology from multiple disciplines.

Q. Did you go to school for this?
A. DA: My academic background has definitely been of value to this project, allowing me to better study bee behavior. 
GT: My formal education was studying computer science at Edinburgh University in the ‘70s, where I was taught the fundamentals by world class pioneers in the field. Even though specific technologies have changed through the years, the grounding fundamentals have made it easy for me to keep up.

Q. Where can people go to find out more information about your project?
A. GT: We’re documenting our progress on our website: hive.honeybeegardens.net.
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