A Hacker Walks Into a Beehive

Author: Corin Hirsch       

It’s hard to imagine life without honeybees. But in the last few years, that scenario has inched ever closer to reality. Around the world, bees have been mysteriously disappearing—abandoning their hives in swarms, never to return. In the United States alone, nearly one-third of beehives have succumbed to colony-collapse disorder in recent years; last September, seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees landed on the U.S. endangered-species list, the first time that any bee has appeared on that report.

Where are the bees vanishing to? And why?

Those questions are fueling research projects, articles, meetings, and, increasingly, corporate social responsibility efforts. In July, Cisco Systems staged a hackathon in advance of Cisco Live US 2016 that was focused on untangling colony-collapse disorder. The program brought 100 software and app developers to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas on July 9–10 to come up with a data-sorting solution in tandem with bee-tagging efforts half a world away, in Australia.

“Everyone has a passion around bees and what’s going on with bees,” said Parvaneh P. Merat, business development manager for Cisco. “We wanted to do our fair share to demonstrate how Cisco technology can have a big impact on what’s going on in the world relating to bees.”

As Cisco transitions “from a hard-ware to a software company,” Merat said, it’s focusing on creating innovation centers and building a developer community. All four of the Cisco Live events held around the world each year feature a DevNet (Developer Network) Zone, where the company shows off “interesting, innovative applications using Cisco technology and some partner technology,” Merat said. And each DevNet Zone event hosts a hackathon that precedes Cisco Live. “We’ve been doing this now for 18 months,” Merat said, “and have transitioned to more social-responsibility-focused hackathons.”


In Las Vegas, Cisco called on developers to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to collect and aggregate data from bee-tagging and data-collection technologies, so researchers might use it to assess bee movements and health—and possibly come up with solutions to their disappearance. The company’s interest in bees can be traced back to 2010, when a handful of employees in its Paris office took beekeeping classes, bought three hives with 90,000 bees, and established a colony on the office roof. As the colony flourished, the group collected and sold honey, donating the proceeds to a biodiversity-focused nonprofit.

But it wasn’t a typical bee colony. It featured sensors to measure hive conditions, including temperature, humidity, bee movements, and overall colony health. The beekeepers called their project Connected Bees, and it provided a real-world example of how “the Internet of Everything — people, process, data, and things—can support the study and management of bee populations,” according to a Cisco case study. Soon, Cisco offices in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom followed suit. A Connected Bees Facebook group appeared, and global bee health landed on Cisco’s corporate radar.

Meanwhile, an Australian data-innovation team called Data 61—a division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)—also began digging into research on the disappearance of bees. In 2014, in tandem with a worldwide effort called the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health (GIHH), Data 61 began fitting honeybees with tiny RFID tags that could collect a wide range of data. Dubbed “bee backpacks,” the 2.5-square-millimeter chips were built by Hitachi with integrated technology from Intel.

“Focusing on bees helps to show how technology can be used to advance our understanding of complex issues,” said Peter Carter, an innovation partner-ship manager at Data 61. “In this case, around the biophysical interaction between insects and the environment, and the importance of better under-standing those interactions to secure food security and address issues around agricultural productivity. The Internet of Things is becoming a really good metaphor for people to understand the connection between data and how we can use that information to better focus scientific research.”

The methodology of the CSIRO project—dubbed “Save the Bees: A relayr project for Ecosystem Health” (relayr is a provider of IoT hardware solutions)—is to tag 250 to 500 bees per hive. Because a bee’s lifespan maxes out at around 150 days, the tagging is constant. And CSIRO’s efforts are just one part of GIIH, which hopes to tag a million bees in every country in the world by this year.

“From the innovation-center point of view, Cisco wanted to get involved with the data collection of this, because it’s huge,” Merat said. “When it comes to connectivity, [the partners] have the technology they need for one colony at a time. But when it comes to the inter-net and data collection and connectivity, that’s where Cisco can really help.”


The developers who signed up for Cisco’s bee-focused hackathon were charged with building an app to make sense of the tide of data being collected by CSIRO, whose work at that point was still in its early days. Each of the 13 teams was provided “with a million data points to work with and a challenge to create an application to allow this information to be more accessible to a global audience,” Carter said. “Between 500 and 1,000 instrumented hives across the world are bringing all of that [collected] information into a central cloud.”

Before arriving in Las Vegas, each team took part in a webinar that acquainted them with the ins and outs of Cisco application program interfaces (APIs). Once on site, they had 24 hours to come up with their respective solutions, which would be open source for all to see. The DevNet Zone in which they worked was decked out with towering fabric honeycombs, to mirror the hackathon’s beehive theme.

The winning team was called the Plan Bee Team, led by David Guidos of St. Louis–based Asynchrony Labs, working with fellow developers Todd Erickson, Tim Fuller, and Shawn Donoho. Together, they came up with a system of relayr sensors and thermal imaging to detect hive health and the comings and goings of bees. Once the data is collected, it can be transmitted to a cloud via Spark and correlated with Zeus, both Cisco technologies. If there are noticeable problems with the hive, the data can help researchers pinpoint what the problem might be.

Plan Bee wasn’t just a theoretical solution. It’s in the process of being implemented by CSIRO in Tasmania. “That something really tangible and real came from the hackathon,” Merat said, “is a very big win.”

Monique Lampson, program manager at Cisco, emphasized how this particular IoT solution might have implications beyond honeybees. “We’ve been able to take this particular initiative, the Internet of Things, and actually move it forward from these successes that we had at the hackathon,” said Lampson, who traveled to Tasmania this past fall to take part in bee-tagging efforts.

“[The hackathon] shows how excel-lent science, combined with corporates that are working together on global issues, is relevant to how we’ll live in the future,” Carter said. “If we get it right for this case, then conversations about health and transport and future cities and all of the other areas that Cisco is focused on become more tangible. [IoT] really is a matter of the ‘internet of one thing at a time,’ at present. If we get one right, we keep building on that.”


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