Professor Navid Shaghaghi, a lecturer and researcher at Santa Clara University in California, is known as a STEM rock star on YouTube. Talk to him for any length of time and you’ll see why. His knowledge is expansive and his enthusiasm is contagious. Currently, he is working with a group of undergraduate and graduate students on a project called HiveSpy which uses automation to save beekeepers time, money, and energy. I took notes in my college notebook while Professor Shaghaghi got me up to speed on his project.
How did you get involved with the HiveSpy project?
NS: Back in 2018, two grad students and I decided to take part in the THRIVEX Challenge which encouraged students to find ways to address labor shortages in agriculture. We thought of beekeeping and went to the farmers market to talk to a beekeeper. He said they had to go every day to check every frame of every box in the hive of the apiary. So we thought, “Why can’t we automate that? People pull out their apps to see how the stock market is doing. Why not do the same thing with beehives?”
Why were the beekeepers checking the frames so often?
NS: They were trying to prevent a problem called swarming which is where bees run out of room in the hive. That then triggers a biological reproductive process telling them “you’ve grown really well, now it’s time to form an entirely new hive.” The queen then lays a certain number of queen eggs and leaves with about 60% of the workers to form a new hive. That leaves behind 40% of workers whose job is to take care of the larvae, not to gather honey. On top of that, there is no queen for a period of time. As a result, the whole hive can be lost.
How does HiveSpy solve that problem?
NS: The main goal is to reduce the labor of the beekeeper. When you pull out every individual frame, chunks of wax and honey may break off and plummet to the bottom which could kill a bee or two or even the queen. Mainly, HiveSpy prevents having to check each individual frame by monitoring and reporting the weight of every frame remotely. With HiveSpy, they can go to each box and pull out just the frames that are ready to harvest. It reduces labor and prevents swarming. If the box doesn’t become filled with honey, then swarming is significantly reduced.
What challenges have you encountered with the HiveSpy project?
NS: There is very little room in beehive boxes. Also, sensors have to be very small. Sensors currently available are not very precise because they are meant for other uses. Eventually, we found really good sensors but ran into a second problem—each sensor is $25 and you need two per frame and there are 10 frames in every box. That adds up to $500 per box and there are four to five boxes per hive. No beekeeper will pay that much. So we decided that we have to build our own sensors.
The challenge is now to shrink this down to the size that can fit into the beehive. Communication is another issue. How do we get all this data to come out? We are looking at 3D printing our own circuitry into ledge extenders that we are building into frames.
Is COVID-19 slowing you down?
NS: We can’t go to the lab to work on things but we are working on the software now and some students have the hardware. In addition, we paid for all these great technologies and built a big 3D printer in the lab that we can’t use. It’s been really weird. Our goal is to try to make some progress this summer and get that built up.
How are you going to test out HiveSpy once you finish it?
NS: The university partners with HiveMinded, a company that installs and maintains beehives across Silicon Valley. HiveMinded said they’d love to work with us and install HiveSpy here on campus. Perhaps the rich tech industries would be our first customers.
So how does that work if HiveSpy becomes commercially successful?
NS: Santa Clara University started the Bronco Venture Accelerator last year. We are going to try to see if we can get into the program and pose it as a startup forming around research. If we succeed the students could get a job from it. I would probably just be on the board (laughs).