Missoula beekeepers develop app that ‘listens’ to a hive’s health

Scott Debnam, the University of Montana’s online beekeeping course instructor, left, and Jerry Bromenshenk, co-owner of Bee Alert Technology Inc., try to open a “package” of honeybees to place in a new observation hive at the University Center. The glass hive allows onlookers to view the inner-workings of a colony, and will be attached to an outdoor camera and counter that will stream live online. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Honeybees can communicate the health of their colony by the frequency of their buzzing, and an app can help translate that to beekeepers thanks to a group of Missoula scientists.

The Bee Health Guru smartphone app listens to bee colonies and can report in seconds to a beekeeper whether the hives is well or ailing. The app can even tell if the queen has died, if the hive is infested with Varroa mites, or if the colony is failing. In all, it listens for eight different conditions, using a smartphone’s microphone.

Since 2006, 20 percent to 40 percent of bee colonies in the United States have suffered “colony collapse.” So scientists are always looking for a better means of assessing the health of a hive.

“I know that it can transform the industry,” said Jerry Bromenshenk, founder and co-owner of Bee Alert Technology Inc.

The app took over a decade to research and develop. Bromenshenk, now retired from teaching the University of Montana’s online beekeeping courses, also researched bee-related applications for the military, including the use of honeybees to detect land mines.

The new app will also help beekeepers determine what certain issues look like and explain what they are. An online beekeeping community is also built into the system.

When smartphones had the processing power to run the app in 2018, the team was able to further develop it. The Bee Health Guru can be used by most Android and Apple iOS smartphones.

“This will improve bee health,” Bromenshenk said. “This is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for bees in your own hand, in your own phone.”

The group has started a $13,000 monthlong Kickstarter to help fund further development, including improving the app’s functionality for different phone types and getting other beekeepers to use the app and report feedback. Using artificial intelligence, the app will learn to listen and adjust with time.

Professional recording equipment is 80 percent to 90 percent accurate, next to visual inspections by experts.

“The nice thing is that our systems learn. So what we really need to do is get this out in the hands of lots of people,” Bromenshenk said.

The other issue: Bees have different accents.

Scott Debnam holds a queen bee marked with a green spot that’s packaged separately from her colony. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Different diseases or changes bee colonies experience cause them to buzz at different frequencies.

Some regions may or may not have Varroa mites, for example. Other areas may have altogether different pests. So the Kickstarter will help raise money to create different versions of the app.

“(Bees in New Zealand) sound different from ours and we need to have a New Zealand version of it because it’s like human accents,” Bromenshenk said. “You’ve got to essentially adjust them. It’s easily adjustable if you get the sampling.”

The feedback can be uploaded to a cloud-based system, where the researchers can use it to improve the app and verify if it made a sound analysis. Traditional paper surveys could be inaccurate, since most beekeepers are usually unsure what affected their colonies and caused them to collapse.

Beekeepers can use the app commercially, with the pro version, which charges a fee based on the size of the operation. That version allows the app’s bee experts to analyze surveys and provide quick and accurate feedback on the health of the beekeeper’s bees.

“The most important thing is, we can start to develop a huge data set that tells us what’s happening, where, when and how it’s spreading. We’ve never had anything even remotely approaching that capability before,” Bromenshenk said.

Now the app has a few hundred users, and the beekeeping industry can finally catch up with modern technology. Bromenshenk said that traditional ways of beekeeping dating back to the 1800s are still used today.

“We need funding to help us help the bees and get this thing working,” he said. 

The app was developed by Bromenshenk, Robert Seccomb, Colin Henderson and David Firth.

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.