What Is The Hardest Thing About Beekeeping?

byRu Wikmann|31 July, 2023

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BeeSage started serendipitously at a hackathon when I met my electronics engineer co-founder who’s dad is a hobby beekeeper. He didn’t have much experience in the apiary, and neither did myself. Once we decided to form this company and work towards our mission of enabling bees to share knowledge with humans through real-time data, we knew it would be a steep learning curve ahead of us. So I became a member of Latvian Beekeepers Association, and took up a beekeeping course.

It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. Although I don’t have my own beehives yet, given the extreme workload being an early-stage startup CEO, I’ve gained a fair degree of theoretical knowledge and practical experience in the apiary through beekeeping lessons and an apprenticeship with a large commercial beekeeper in Bulgaria.

Nevertheless, the most significant learnings have come from conversations with our customers. The recipe for startup success according to Y Combinator is to make something people want. Sounds extremely simple but in reality it takes a huge deal of persistence and dedication in asking the right questions over a prolonged period of time.

Aside from individual conversations, surveys have been very helpful in this pursuit. Given that we live and breathe a data-driven approach to beekeeping, we must also quantify the answers from our customers in a way that paints an objective view of their lived experience. The chart above compares answers to the question “What’s the hardest thing about beekeeping?” by a few hundred Latvian beekeepers from a survey we have done twice so far.

To avoid bias for this particular question I left it up to them to respond in their own words. Then I went through all the answers, and created 17 classes to cluster the responses statistically. Let’s go through what we learned from this, and cover a few additional questions I asked.

Beekeeping is physically demanding

Physical exertion is a challenging aspect of beekeeping for several reasons. Beekeepers handle beehives i.e. boxes filled with honeycombs, and other equipment. These objects can be quite heavy, especially when they are full of honey and bees. Constantly lifting and moving them during hive inspections, honey harvesting, and general maintenance can take a toll on the beekeeper's body. Various weather conditions, like the extreme heat encountered during parts of the summer in Europe can be physically demanding, and can lead to fatigue and dehydration.

Many beekeeping tasks require repetitive motions, such as lifting hive boxes, using a smoker, or uncapping honeycombs. These repetitive actions can strain muscles and joints, leading to physical discomfort and potential long-term injuries.

Beekeepers usually wear protective clothing, including a bee suit and gloves to shield themselves from bee stings. While essential for safety, this gear can be cumbersome and add extra weight to the beekeeper's body, making physical movements more challenging. Moreover, some risk of getting stung by bees is always there, especially during hive inspections or other interactions with the colonies. Some individuals may be more sensitive to bee stings, leading to severe allergic reactions.

The seasonal demands are always changing because beekeeping tasks vary throughout the year. During the busy season, such as spring and summer when bees are most active, the workload increases significantly. Beekeepers must invest more time and effort to keep up with colony management, honey extraction, and swarm prevention.

Lastly, many beekeepers are of an older generation, and physical exertion becomes more difficult with age. As a result, some tasks that were once manageable may become more challenging.

Real-time data from the apiary enables informed decisions

We may not be looking to replace beekeepers with robots by managing beehives remotely (oh, hello Beewise), however, we do provide real-time data from apiaries through our beehive monitoring system, which acts as a decision support system (DSS), helping beekeepers to boost honey yield, improve the health of their colonies, and mitigate other risks.

Real-time information about the colonies is crucial for beekeepers to assess the health and well-being of their bees. Without access to up-to-date data, beekeepers might miss early signs of potential issues such as disease outbreaks, pest infestations, or queen problems. Timely detection is essential for taking corrective measures to prevent colony losses.

Beekeepers need to closely monitor their colonies during the swarming season. Swarming is a natural reproductive process of honeybee colonies, but it can lead to the loss of valuable worker bees and the division of the colony. Through our HiveNode we’ll enable beekeepers to anticipate and prevent swarming by knowing when colonies are preparing to swarm and taking appropriate actions to manage the situation.

The availability of nectar and pollen is vital for the development and productivity of bee colonies. Real-time information about nectar flow enabled by Smart Beehive Scales allows beekeepers to plan honey harvesting, supplemental feeding (if necessary), and other management practices. Without this data, beekeepers might miss optimal windows for honey extraction or fail to provide necessary resources during periods of scarcity.

Weather events can have a significant impact on honeybee colonies. Extreme temperatures, heavy rain, strong winds, or sudden temperature drops can stress the bees and affect their foraging behaviour. Real-time weather data allows beekeepers to make informed decisions, such as providing extra protection to the colonies during adverse weather conditions.

Additionally, beekeeping requires efficient resource management. With real-time information about nectar flow and weather events, beekeepers can allocate their time and resources more effectively. For example, they can move their colonies to an area with abundant nectar sources or prioritise inspections and hive manipulations based on the current weather conditions in the apiary.

Having access to real-time data enables beekeepers to make data-driven decisions rather than relying solely on past experiences or assumptions. This can lead to more proactive and informed beekeeping practices, ultimately improving colony health and honey production.

Winnie the Pooh famously said you never can tell with bees. And this indeed is a fair statement, given that in their responses beekeepers also highlighted predicting colony behaviour as one of the issues. Nevertheless, focusing on understanding bees through real-time data will enable us to treat them better, and perhaps we’ll learn a thing or two about our planet in the process.

Driving technology adoption in beekeeping

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As you can see from the graph above, we’re yet to cross the chasm of technology adoption in beekeeping. The real number may be even lower, given that the question was phrased in a way to find out from our audience if they have any experience with smart devices in beekeeping, rather than if they are currently using technology to assist them.

Beekeeping is an age-old practice that has been passed down through generations, and many beekeepers have relied on traditional methods and techniques for decades. There can be resistance to change, especially among older beekeepers who are accustomed to their tried-and-tested approaches.

Moreover, the beekeeping industry is often made up of small-scale beekeepers or hobbyists who operate independently. Unlike large agricultural industries, there may not be centralized entities or organizations to drive widespread technology adoption or provide support for implementation.

This is why at BeeSage we’re focused on ease of use and immaculate customer experience. Everything works out-of-the-box, and a beekeeper does not need to know anything about the underlying technology. As long as they can use a smartphone and/or computer, they can benefit from our beehive monitoring system.

We asked beekeepers which type of data is most useful to them - weight, in-hive temperature, in-hive humidity, ambient temperature, ambient humidity, sound, wind or all of the above. 50% of respondents said weight, and 32% believe all of these are important, while in-hive temperature was the next most common choice. This answer shows that launching beehive scales first as a standalone product was a good decision, while we’re developing the complete system, which consists of multiple devices that all connect to the Scales via long range Bluetooth.

Are you a sideliner or commercial beekeeper looking to boost honey yield while improving the health of your colonies? Drop us a line here if you’d like to learn more. Happy beekeeping!