Can Technology Save the Bees?

The honey bee population has been in decline for decades, prompting serious concerns about the global food supply and environment. Engineers and scientists are using technology in the fight to preserve these crucial pollinators.

By Marcie Mathis, SWE Editorial Board

Growing up, science was my favorite subject. I was especially interested in insects, learning everything I could through reading and studying them in the backyard. Eventually, I became an engineer, but I never really outgrew my bug phase, and early in my college career seriously considered a major in entomology.

Credit: Olga Nefedova

Recently, I rekindled my interest in part because of the plight of insect pollinators like honey bees. Bees have an enormous impact on both the foods we consume and our environment. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Pollinators, most often honey bees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food we take, and increase our nation’s crop values each year by more than $15 billion. However, honey bees have been in serious decline for more than three decades in the United States.”

I wanted to look at how engineers are helping save the bees, and I found there is much going on. Engineers, scientists, and others are using technology to help bees and beekeepers in a wide array of ways, from being beekeepers themselves, to using high-tech imaging to measure the health of a hive, to finding ways to help bees reduce Amazon deforestation. Below I share three examples I found.

The Hampstead & Highgate Express, a weekly London newspaper, highlighted Helen Rogers in a January 2022 article, “From Engineer to Beekeeper: Highgate Woman Smashing Stereotypes.” Rogers moved from rural Oxfordshire to London in the 1990s to study engineering. Ten years ago, her husband presented her with a beehive, and she became a beekeeper when she wasn’t working as a consultant engineer. She has since gone from beekeeping hobbyist to entrepreneur, and four years ago founded the company Highgate Honey, which sells honey, candles, and beeswax wraps. Rogers co-wrote a book, 80 Flowers for Bees, with her horticulturalist mother to share information about good practices for beekeepers that benefit bees as well as humans. On Jan. 10, 2022, Rogers was listed in the f:Entrepreneur #ialso100 campaign, which profiles 100 female entrepreneurs across the U.K.

One chapter of Amy Wu’s book, From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators Revolutionizing How Our Food is Grown, is about Ellie Symes, a beekeeper and entrepreneur. After discovering beekeeping during a college internship, Symes turned her interest into a student beekeeping club at Indiana University Bloomington. In 2016, she and fellow IU Bloomington student Wyatt Wells founded and launched The Bee Corp. The company offers technology through a mobile app that uses infrared images to measure the health of a hive. This helps both beekeepers and growers know the pollination value of the hive, without having to open the hive. According to the company’s website, its mission is to: “develop technology to help beekeepers maximize pollination revenue per hive and help growers reduce cost and optimize pollination quality. That’s why we created [an] unbiased and objective hive grading system.” A self-described podcast junkie, Symes has been interviewed on many podcasts, including “My Ag Life” and “Beekeeping Today.” Links to these can be found on The Bee Corp website.

The aim of Planet Bee, a startup launched by four Harvard students, Takeo Tokunari, Kelsey Burhans, Tomohito Okuda, and Jenny Jiang, is to make traditional beekeeping economical for people living in the rainforest. A March 2021 article, “A Buzzworthy Solution: Student Startup Fights Amazon Deforestation by Boosting Beekeepers,” posted on the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website, describes how the Planet Bee process “centers on melipona, a species of stingless bees native to Central and South America.” Using stingless bees means no need for special handling equipment, which reduces costs. Planet Bee is also working on redesigning the hive box to further increase potential revenue.

I am heartened by these, and other examples I found, of the important engineering and technology that is helping to save the bees. It gives me hope for the bees and all the ways in which we and our environment depend upon their vital contributions to our ecosystem.

Marcie Mathis (she, her, hers), graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She has spent most of her engineering career as a civilian U.S. Navy employee and works at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. She joined SWE in 1988 as a student and serves on the multicultural committee and as a member of the editorial board.