The latest buzz around digital agriculture

“It wasn’t until a family friend took me beekeeping that I got hooked,” recalled Brock Harpur, assistant professor of entomology. “It happened as soon as I put on the suit, opened up the colony and saw the life inside. It’s pretty remarkable what you can see inside of a honey bee colony as a scientist.”

Harpur’s fascination with bees did not develop until college, yet his interest in biology was deep-seated. “British Columbia is a pretty fantastic place to live as a kid,” shared Harpur. “There’s a lot to do outdoors, so that’s what I tended to do. I spent a lot of time looking at insects. I really loved ants. I could hike along a trail and see all of the little ground nesting ants, their trails and foraging patterns.”

Honey Bees grouped together

Harpur wanted to study biology and assumed that meant his most logical choice was to become a medical doctor, so he pursued the goal into college.

“I would have been a terrible medical doctor,” Harpur said. “Luckily, I had great professors while I was doing my degree who made it clear that I could actually have a career studying insects.”

Following his revelation, Harpur started to research ants. It wasn’t until his first experience with beekeeping that he discovered his eventual field.

“What was so mesmerizing about the inside of a honey bee colony was looking at all of those interacting activities of a superorganism, the actions of individuals coming together and forming collective behavior,” Harpur recalled. “As I dug a little deeper and began reading, I became fascinated with every aspect of it.”

The passion is shared across Harpur’s lab. “Everyone in my lab, truly loves bees and their natural history but our focus is largely on their genetics. We want to know how those little parts of the genome contribute to some of the variation we see in our honey bee colonies in the apiary, those around Indiana, around the United States and around the world.”

“We use several big data technologies in the lab,” said Harpur.  “We pair genomics and transcriptomics with high-throughput passive measurement systems.” These technological advances facilitate experiments that are more automated, thorough and less disruptive than ever.”

A bee with and RFID held by a gloved hand

“Garett Slater, a graduate student in the lab, is using RFID tags pasted onto the backs of individual bees to track when they come and go from a colony,” Harpur explained.

Using radio waves, sensors can capture simple data encoded in the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. “Every time a honey bee passes a sensor, it detects the RFID and stores data in an on-board computer.”

The lab currently has thousands of honey bees tagged. “From those individuals, we’ll get thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of reads of them leaving and returning to the colony,” said Harpur. “That tells us how long they were out or, in the case of male honeybees, how long they were out looking for a mate. If they don’t return, that can be indicative of them dying or drifting to another colony.”

Harpur’s lab pairs the information with data gathered by customized digital thermometers, which can measure five points of temperature within a colony for months at a time.

“For example,” said Harpur, “let’s say the bees don’t go out one day. We can pair that with data from the nearest weather station and our in-colony thermal data and begin identifying which cues are influencing decision making in the colony”

“The goal is for us to get as much passively-collected phenotyping data and measure as many characteristics from a colony as we can. It’s a lot of work to open up a colony and pull out individual honey bees and measure them, or even just weigh a colony.”

“To be able to get thousands of measurements a day is really powerful. Where we can’t find technologies to do that, we’re working in the lab or with collaborators to develop them.”

Story by Chad Campbell

Photos by Tom Campbell