Next time you see bees buzzing around your garden, take a moment to consider just how important they are to our ecosystem. According to research, crops pollinated by bees make up 35 percent of global food production, which is valued at a total of $577 billion.
Aside from benefiting humans, many animal species depend on bees for their survival because their food sources, including nuts, berries, seeds, and fruits, rely on insect pollination.
This makes we4bee’s research as important to our environment as it is interesting to us honey-loving humans.
After considering the wider significance of the environment to our survival though contemporary trendsetters such as Greta Thunberg, biomedical scientist Dr. Claudia Leikam embarked on a quest to uncover the mysteries surrounding bee behavior using new technologies.
Today, 50 percent of native wild bees in Germany are endangered or threatened with extinction, and two-thirds of domestic bee colonies have disappeared within the last 100 years. These declines have been mirrored in the rest of Europe and North America, where bee populations have reached a 50-year low.
we4bee, a company based in Würzburg, Germany, was born from Dr. Leikam’s desire to reverse this trend, by creating artificial, data-driven beehives that could enable scientists to analyze social patterns of behavior in honeybee colonies.
we4bee have created intelligent beehives equipped with sensors that transmit data via Wi-Fi for analysis at the University of Würzburg. The start-up used Microsoft Azure credits to develop a prototype to collect the we4bee hive data.
The data, which relates to temperature, humidity, air pressure, weight, noise, and particulate-matter pollution, tell experts a lot about bee behavior patterns and how they change in different environments. The data can be tracked by hive operators via an android app. Experts can then carry out long-term investigations and analyze the effects of certain influences on bee colonies.
“Overall, the number of honeybees is increasing which is positive, but the problem is that the different species of wild bees are decreasing”, said Dr. Leikam.
“We knew there was a need to conduct research on the honeybee and the environments it exists in as it’s fairly unknown why those species die”, she added. “Just putting it down to climate change and pesticides paints too simplistic a picture.”
Dr. Leikam works on the project alongside Professor Jürgen Tautz, a renowned bee researcher and one of the leading experts on bees in Germany. Dr. Leikam has also hired a highly dedicated engineer, while also collaborating with the data science chair at the University of Würzburg, Professor Dr. Andreas Hotho, and one of his PhD students, to analyze the data.
Having studied for a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences at The Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg, Claudia embarked upon a PhD in Life Sciences, which she completed in 2011. A fan of life-long education, Claudia has worked on a broad range of projects that encourage learning, including an online platform to help Biology teachers connect with the individual needs of students.
Claudia is committed to bringing out the creative side of science and discovering interesting, innovative ideas that engage young people and encourage them to learn more about the world around them.
She said: “I studied Biomedical Sciences because I wanted to work in cancer research. My goal was to make a difference and contribute to a healthier world. In my opinion, research is the key to gaining knowledge and developing innovative solutions for any task or problem we are facing.”
we4bee has reviewed almost 300 applications from schools and other institutions that would like to set up one of their hives, as well from urban beekeepers who want to get involved, proving just how vital and popular initiatives into protecting our ecosystem are.
The company has so far delivered 42 beehives to institutions, with 17 are already up and running, successfully transmitting interesting data back to the university. It hopes to have all 100 beehives operational by October 2019.
“We target educational facilities because young people are great multipliers of knowledge, taking their learnings back home to their families,” Dr. Leikam explained.
To help expand resources and improve the technology, we4bee partnered with Microsoft after being accepted into Microsoft’s AI for Earth’s program in April 2019. The start-up received Azure credits, and later attended Microsoft Ideafest in Munich on July 3rd and 4th, 2019.
Dr. Leikam explained that: “The collaboration with Microsoft has been amazing. It’s been great to see that a company of such size can be so agile and personable.”
“We used the Azure credits to develop a prototype to collect the we4bee hive data via Microsoft IoT services.”
“The Custom Vision AI service enabled the development of a prototype to detect and count varroa mites in our beehives.”
“Both systems, as well as a gamified learning platform we would like to pursue, proved Microsoft services to be vital for we4bee to improve our system and reach our long-term goals.”
Dr. Leikam is already thinking about how the data we4bee collects could be used to solve other environmental issues.
“The short term goal is to make the work of beekeepers easier and to understand insect behavior more thoroughly, but in the long term we want to take our technology further by predicting earthquakes and other natural disasters.”
“It’s been proven widely that insects and other animals start to behave differently before natural disasters hit, and we need to learn how to read those signs reliably.“
“For now, we’d like to begin 2020 by optimizing the technology within the systems so that we can work on a 2.0 version for the beehives.”
“We are focusing our goals on a European network for now, but our aim is certainly to go global in due course, once we have implemented all learnings from the European roll-out.”
“The future for us, and for bees, is certainly exciting. We can’t wait to see how far our journey will take us.”