A new website seeks to give beekeepers and bee managers the informational tools they need to successfully raise colonies of pollinators vital to the nation’s agricultural system.
Beescape is a website that uses open source data to give beekeepers and bee managers in Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania scores for their landscape based on several different factors. The website is the product of a collaboration among researchers at Penn State University and several universities across the country.
Brock Harpur, an assistant professor at Purdue University, studies honey bee genetics and helped design Beescape. He says bees are critically important to the agricultural system in Indiana and the rest of the nation. Pollinators like bees transfer pollen from one plant to another, fertilizing plants to grow crops. Bees make it possible for crops like almonds, blueberries and watermelon to be grown across the U.S.
By some estimates, pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take each day.
According to Harpur, there are about 4,000 beekeepers in the state of Indiana who manage between 10 and 11,000 bee colonies.
“Beekeeping at the moment is challenging because of elevated colony losses,” Harpur said. “Beekeepers in Indiana can expect to lose, over an entire year, upwards of 60% of their colonies.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest honey bee colony survey shows beekeepers around the country facing similar challenges. The USDA says the top factors affecting the health and success of a bee colony are the varroa mite and environmental factors.
According to Harpur, the varroa mite feeds on fat within the honey bee’s body while also injecting viruses that eventually kill the bee.
Beekeepers sometimes use chemicals to eliminate the mite. Those varroacides, and any other pesticides farmers use to protect their crops, can have a negative effect on bee colony success and survival.
Harpur says Beescape is designed to help beekeepers, bee managers and people who keep bees as a hobby.
“It’s a means for a beekeeper to take a landscape view of their surrounding environment and make predictions about how suitable a given habitat will be for their colonies,” he said. “Beekeepers can look at sites across their landscape and maximize where they’re putting their colonies.”
Once registered on the site, a user in Indiana, Illinois or Pennsylvania can plot the position of their bee colonies. They will then receive scores for five items: nesting quality, insecticide load and the floral quality of the location in spring, summer and fall. Users can also check out the scores for other areas on their property to see if other spots would be a more suitable location for the colonies.
The Beescape team has packed the site with open-sourced data sets to give users information as accurate as possible, but the team hopes beekeepers will provide personally collected data to improve the accuracy of scores and predictions.
“When you provide us with information, we feed it into a model and we basically make our dataset and our predictions better,” Harpur said. “Every beekeeper we get and every year we get data, we’re making those predictions better. It’s something that just continues improving.”
Harpur says the Beescape team hopes to expand the site’s reach across the country.
“I want this to be the hub of data-driven beekeeping,” he said. “I would like a majority of the beekeepers in Indiana specifically to take part in this, because I think it’s a tool and investment for the future of beekeeping in Indiana and for the rest of the country.”