Background Research – Beekeeping

These past few weeks I have been conducting interviews with people involved in various citizen science work in the Pittsburgh area.  I spoke to two members of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom club on their DNA barcoding program, field identification strategies, how technology impacts citizen science work and other topics surrounding mycology. The conversations are still being transcribed and will be included in a later blog post.  They have been helpful in further understanding and gaining insight on the design space for my projects to build wearable devices to be used in citizen science applications.

In looking at other potential areas to work in, I have started looking at local beekeeping work since this is also a field that brings together both amateurs and experts observing the environment. Like mushrooms, bees can also be an important indicator of environmental effects since they are sensitive to temperature changes and their surrounding habitat for growth and production. Also like mushrooms, they provide a product – usually the honey- which can be an incentive for pursuing beekeeping as a hobby.


Yesterday I spoke to Jet who started beekeeping with his wife a few years ago as a side project. I visited their hives behind their house in Forest Hills and spoke to Jet about tools and equipment, the community support and what he has learned over the years doing beekeeping. They currently have three hives (about 40,000 – 60,000 per hive) and are hoping to have more

The following images are some beekeeping garments. These suits and garments are usually white because they are non-threatening to bees. They have been evolved to become defensive to large moving dark objects (such as bears and raccoons) so by wearing white, (hopefully) you are more likely to approach the hive without getting stung.


These jackets have a veil that can be zipped into the collar area to prevent bees from flying in. This jacket is more for spring/fall weather and is made out of a thicker woven cotton fabric. Elastic is also at the end of the sleeves and the bottom. Some beekeepers also tape/tie their pants legs to prevent any bees from flying up their pants…


The veil – designed to prevent bees from flying into your face while also allowing you to see! It is a hat with a rigid brim with a screen that goes around the face area. For this veil, there is also a toggle pull at the bottom so you can tighten it if need beeeeee.


An interesting feature of the jacket were these elastic loops at the end of the sleeves that you can put around you finger to make sure that the sleeves stay down. If you are wearing gloves, they can be pulled around the over the fingers.


Here is the summer jacket which is made out of a more mesh-like ventilated material.  Although the materials for these equipment have changed over time (using synthetic materials, updated zippers and hardware), the overall design hasn’t changed too much. In general, the goal for the equipment hasn’t really changed – how to protect yourself from bees as your enter their hive!


**Entering the hive**  Bees will defend the entrance of their hives. We watched a few bees defend from robbing (when other bees try to enter to take the honey). Around the hive you will also see dead bees, since bees will push out ill, dying and dead bees.




On the day I went to visit the hives, it was fairly warm so we were able to check on the syrup levels for the hives. Since beekeepers extract the honey from the hives, a syrup is placed on the top level of the hive to provide food for the bees. In the winter time, a fondant is used in its place so that it doesn’t freeze.  One of the main concerns that beekeepers have over the winter is making sure their hive survives.


It was interesting to talk to Jet about the beekeeping network and community. Like a lot of other niche subjects, beekeeping has a buzzing online network. There is a local mailing list for beekeepers in the southwestern PA region and they will keep each other posted with hive observations, swarms and other updates. There are also other mailing lists and forums depending on your hive setup and specific interests in beekeeping. Burghs Bees is a local group that provides support and mentorship for beekeepers, along with maintaining urban apiaries (like a community garden but with hives instead of plots).


In the realm of beekeeping and new technologies, open source sensors are being developed to monitor hives. Open Source Beehives is one example of these projects where they provide various source files for hive designs and sensor kits to detect bee hive health.  One challenge of developing electronics and sensors for hives is that bees will cover and seal any foreign objects with propolis, a sticky combination of sap, bee discharge and beeswax. Jet mentioned a project in which sensors were installed within the hive only to realize that the bees had completely covered the sensors with propolis and rendered it useless. Other projects such detecting the sound emerging from the hives using signal processing are also in the works.

However, I was really intrigued by the very lo-fi tools that Jet and other beekeepers use for hive maintenance. Below are some pest management tools for detecting the amount of mites in the hive:


This device is used to count if how many mites are present within a population of bees. One end of the jar is opened and a group of about 100 bees are captured and trapped in one end.  Alcohol is then poured over the bees from the other end to kill them, the jar is screwed back on and when it drains through the mesh in the center, you’ll have dead bees on one side and on the bottom you may see mites floating in the alcohol. Depending on how many mites you see will determine if you need to do some mite management.


Another device used for determining if treatment needs to be done for mites is this chart printed on a corrugated plastic material. This chart is placed under the hive for a few days. If there are mites that drop down on the chart, you can determine what specific areas of the hive needs to be treated, rather than having to do the whole thing.  Bee data viz! img_5645 img_5647

Again, this meeting was really informative in terms of learning about the tools, equipment, challenges and communities in beekeeping.  This would be an interesting area to work in regards to Field Computing.

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