In Estonia, where everything you need is accessible via smartphone, it might seem like a no-brainer that digital solutions would find their way into the traditional art of beekeeping. According to innovators, they indeed are, but it will take years to realise their potential.
Estonians do have a taste for honey, and according to a study published in 2020, about 10,000 households produce their own honey, and up to 1,300 tons of honey is purchased annually.
While beekeeping is a rather pastoral activity that requires maintaining hives and harvesting honey, often in a rural setting, Estonian innovators have been working on using digital tools to improve the process for years.
Researchers at the Tallinn Science Park Tehnopol and partners, for example, have devised smart beehives, called nutimesilad in Estonian, that seek to harness the potential of different technologies to assist honey production. Other collaborators include MÖM Organic Honey, a honey producer based outside Tallinn, and Aiotex, which has provided software tools that rely on multisensors to gather data on a variety of parameters, allowing users to view them in real-time, as well as Superhands, another Estonian firm that is the project’s new hardware partner.
According to Allan Liht, the CEO of MÖM Organic Honey and one of the partners leading the smart beehive project, the effort is now in its third year. Following an original pilot study where hives were monitored using multisensors, the developers could hone their system, later installing three of MÖM Organic Honey’s hives at Tehnopol.
“We got to see what the pluses and minuses were,” says Liht.
Bees in the Green Capital Tallinn
Since Tallinn is the European Green Capital in 2023, the smart beehive project innovators also offered every district in the city the opportunity to host three hives. Three districts – Pirita, Kristiine, and Nõmme – accepted the offer. A fourth, Mustamäe, has already maintained hives that it procured earlier in the project.
The multisensors installed in the project’s hives capture diverse data, ranging from humidity to CO2 composition to temperature. They also check any pathogens present in the air and even sound.
“If the bees are bothered by something, the buzzing could rise from 40 to 70 decibels,” Liht notes. “And when they swarm, the sound will change again.”
The developers’ ultimate goal is to gather that data to eventually show how certain parameters can reflect the health of bees and the concentration of varroa mites. “Currently, you can only check the data in real-time,” says Liht. “But our master plan is that the data will be saved for several years and then can be used to make predictions.”
Ideally, there would be an application that would allow a beekeeper to check the data and make adjustments informed by data to improve output. However, who will produce and market that application is yet to be decided. Superhands, Liht adds, is the hardware partner on the project.
While Tehnopol and its partners continue work on the smart beehive project, plans are underway to host the European Association for Bee Research’s Congress of Apidology in Tallinn in September 2024. After Serbia hosted it last year, Estonia was selected as the site of the biannual meeting.
Risto Raimets, a scientist at the Tartu-based Estonian University of Life Sciences, is helping to organise the conference. He was also named beekeeper of the year by the same university last year and maintaines 300 hives himself, which are used to produce honey distributed through Sumila, his company.
According to Raimets, even as most things in society are digitised, beekeeping has remained a traditional endeavour. “And I do hope that beekeeping in some ways will always remain the same, that you put on your suit and go out to the hives,” he says.
Still, there have been technology-driven changes, mostly related to the processing and jarring of honey. “You don’t have to do the spinning by hand, this is done in a machine room, and the process of putting honey in jars is already automated,” he says.
Despite advances in digital beekeeping, no artificial intelligence-based tools are still available, like the kind that Liht and the other developers of the smart beehives have envisioned. There is an application provided by BeeScanning, a Swedish firm, that relies on such algorithms to identify parasites in bees based on a photo taken with a smartphone camera.
“In some ways, these technologies help beekeepers,” Raimets says, “but the hardest work still must be done by hand.”
At next year’s conference, such technologies will no doubt be discussed, as well as other topics relevant to beekeeping, such as parasites, and honey preparation, Raimets says. Fake honey will also be a relevant topic, as many honey producers are undercut by mass-produced syrups designed to taste like honey and even appear to be honey under examination.