Buzz Around IR Cameras Gets Louder in Beekeeping
Thermal IR imaging cameras are best known for their defense and first-responder applications, enabling users to navigate figurative hornet’s nests of unseen dangers. However, the technology is now starting to find new uses at actual hives to combat deadly threats.
Last January, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) launched one of the United States’ first winter honeybee hive inspection programs that utilizes a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera to detect colonies that have been decimated by mites or disease. The IR camera shows beekeepers whether a colony is emitting a strong or weak heat signature. That enables beekeepers to accurately gauge the health of a colony without having to open the container in which it is housed. More than 70 beekeepers agreed to participate in the UDAF program.
An IR camera allows the bees’ winter cluster to be seen at the top of the hive, near the largest portion of the honey. Courtesy of Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
The IR camera, which the UDAF borrowed from the College of Biology at the University of Utah, could replace beekeepers’ traditional method of hive inspection. That involved placing a stethoscope on a container with a hive and listening for the buzz of bees. But UDAF Insect Specialist Joey Caputo said that with the stethoscope, it is hard to determine how many bees are buzzing. In contrast, the heat signature captured by the IR camera provides a clearer picture of the hive’s population.
“It really has the advantage of showing what’s going on inside of a hive, rather than just listening to bees,” Caputo added.
With the thermal insights the camera provides, beekeepers can segregate colonies infected with diseases such as American or European foulbrood, and dispose of contaminated equipment used in containers. That will prevent bees that survived the winter from pillaging contaminated honey from the collapsed hives, and thereby spreading the disease to healthy colonies in the spring. Although varroa mites are another cause of colony collapse, there is a lesser risk of the infestation spreading to neighboring hives in the spring because the parasites usually die with their hosts in the winter.
“We’re trying to find the disease and bring it to the attention of beekeepers before the season begins,” said Caputo.
The need to curb colony collapse stems from the vital role honeybees play in Utah’s economy. From April 2014 to April 2015, beekeepers nationwide reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies — the second-highest annual loss on record. Utah’s annual loss rate was 33.5 percent, according to preliminary results from a national colony loss survey by the Bee Informed Partnership, in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture.
“We may be able to save some bees. They don’t have to die if we can stop the spread of the mite problem or infestation,” said UDAF Public Information Specialist Jack Wilbur.
It remains to be seen how many colonies the UDAF program helped save, or whether beekeepers will buy their own IR cameras. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor and project director of the Bee Informed Partnership, called IR cameras “another tool we have,” but he doubted they would have “a huge impact” in beekeeping. “We know how to find dead colonies,” he said.
Nevertheless, there is buzz around this technology. For instance, last December the beekeeping magazine Bee Culture ran a story headlined, “Infrared: The Next Generation in Colony Management.” It noted how, amid a shift in focus from military to other applications in 2014, the cost of IR cameras had dropped significantly while image quality, robustness and off-the-shelf availability had increased. By 2015, the article noted, IR cameras could be found for as low as $150 to $700, compared to several thousand dollars a few years earlier. However, the FLIR E6 infrared camera that the University of Utah purchased and loaned to the UDAF for the winter inspection program cost $2,500.
Caputo said he has heard much interest in IR imaging technology from commercial beekeepers, though he added, “it’s not cheap.” So the technology’s cost has not completely lost its sting, but the buzz continues.
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