article / 20 December 2016

A hive of activity – CAD designers are crafting an open future for bees

There’s no doubt about it. Bees are an important and integral part of our ecosystem, and their role as pollinators an incredibly important one. If you’re a fan of the popular TV drama series Doctor Who, you may be inclined to believe that bees are an alien race with a secret ulterior motive, but in reality, bees have been looking after us long before Doctor Who first stepped into a Tardis.

Without bees humanity would be in deep trouble. As pollinators, bees provide a key service maintaining healthy ecosystems, with the majority of plant species depending on pollinators for reproduction. While some vertebrates, such as bats, birds and even a few reptiles, are important pollinators, the overwhelming majority are invertebrates.

Bees also play an important role in plant speciation, and have been integral to the evolution of the global plant diversity alive today. The more evolutionarily distinct pollinator species are likely to have forged unique and irreplaceable relationships with the flora they depend on; for example, the diversification of the entire fig wasp lineage has been driven by co-evolution with the figs they pollinate.

Understanding how we can better protect and provide for bees is an important challenge for humanity because all is not well. Total annual losses of bee colonies in the United States were at 42% in 2015. What’s going on? Why is this happening? Can we identify the root causes and help our pollinator friends recover as quickly as possible?

Step forward Aker.

An Aker open source bee hive

An Aker open source Colorado Top bar hive. Top bar hives allow the bees to build “natural” or “free” comb, limiting their exposure to foreign substances.

Aker have developed a special sensor package that can be used to monitor the hive. Recently, they launched a challenge on GrabCAD to design an open source bee hive to house it, and it’s one perfectly suited to community members here at – not only if you’re interested viewing the designs from the CAD challenge itself, but also if you’re an amateur beekeeper and are willing to put their field data loggers in your hives. Perhaps you work with community groups that may be interested too? More.

I’m particularly interested in how community-driven designs will permit the integration of sensors in harmony with the hive’s natural operations – for example, a faraday cage to block electrical signals, or the inclusion of a plexiglass viewing panel to allow for the inspection of electronics / batteries etc… yet not disturb the hive. The CNC design too must use effective CNC joinery that won’t fall apart easily, that endures well in the elements, and that can be produced efficiently without excessive CNC milling service costs.

Open source sensors for bee hives

I’m particularly interested in how designs submitted for the GrabCAD challenge will permit the integration of sensors in harmony with the hive’s natural operations.

It’s a fantastic challenge for designers wishing to use their CAD and engineering skills for greater good and to also learn about a fascinating and vulnerable species.

As a Technical Specialist at the Zoological Society of London and a co-Founder of Naturebytes, I’m delighted to have been asked to Judge the competition together with a number of CAD designers, sensor developers and engineers.

Take a look at the submitted designs yourself.

I’ll leave you with the statistic that almost 90% of flowering plants depend on animal pollinators to survive and reproduce, and the value of crops pollinated by insects is over £133 billion each year!

The fate of all the world's flowering plants, which includes 75% of our food crops, rests on the conservation of key pollinators. Let’s help by crafting an open future for bees by understanding how their hives are performing and by measuring their success so we can better conserve and protect them globally.

About the Author

Alasdair Davies is the Technical Specialist with Conservation Technology Unit, Zoological Society of London. He has over 10 years experience solving conservation challenges in the field through the implementation of viable technologies. His extensive knowledge in wireless & satellite connectivity helped to launch Instant Detect, a satellite connected alarm system for protected areas.  As an advocate of open source hardware and software, Alasdair sees a future where open source technologies and the sharing of knowledge will revolutionize the monitoring of species globally.

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