Counting bees…thanks to Beecounters!

written by Marco Pietropaoli, Giovanni Formato, INSIGNIA Consortium

For the INSIGNIA project (“Environmental monitoring of pesticide use through honey bees” PP-1-1-2018) ( our laboratory in parallel with other project partners from Denmark (Danish Beekeepers Association), Netherlands (Stichting Wageningen Research) and Latvia (Latvian Beekeepers Association) is carrying out a small field trial to check the relation between colony size and forage activity in order to calculate the exposome.

How to count honey bees flying out of the hive? Thanks to Beecounters!

They are light plastic boxes with a micro-processor powered with a 12V current (Figure 1). Just put them at the hive entrance, power on and that’s it!

Figure 1. Beecounter positioned at the hive entrance

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A look from inside

The inside view from colony 3 (see here for construction) explains why bees learn to get out through the exit tubes, but enter through the inside tubes!

This is how the tube construction in colony 3 looks like from inside. We removed two combs for this picture. Photo: Kristina Gratzer.

Beehold tubes after two weeks…

The beehold tubes are used to sample substanced from bees entering the hive. They are placed for two weeks at the hive entrance of colony 1 and 3 with different adaptors (colony 1, colony 3).

This is how our beehold tubes look like after they have been two weeks at the flight entrance and thousands of bees passed (left). The right tube is a new one, for comparison! Photo: Kristina Gratzer.

Collecting beebread

The first official sampling period is right around the corner, so it is time to talk about the sampling procedures in detail. Citizen scientists sample beebread from colony 1 and colony 3. Originally, the idea was to use a specially developed and homemade so-called “beebread collector” to collect the beebread. Nevertheless, in the last few weeks we concluded that simple straws cut in pieces are a better solution. They are even cheaper than the BB-collector, disposable (no exchange of diseases or pesticides) and easier in handling. The aim is to sample in total 3 g of beebread per colony, which is equivalent to 60 cells or about 5 cm of beebread in the straws.

Process of shortening the straws to 2-3 cm pieces

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Citizen Science – innovation at its best

Some blog entries ago we introduced an elegant way of holding the Beehold tubes in colony 3 by inserting 4 holes into a sliding gate. This innovative solution was based on the idea of one of our citizen scientists from Austria. As mentioned in the previous blog posting, bees of colony 1 had or still have issues to get used to the experimental setup but for our citizen scientists this is no reason to throw in the towel. Instead, one of our participants (clever, Roland!) invented a nice, cheap and easy solution to improve the adaption of bees to the new circumstances: firstly, he mounted a landing board to facilitate the traffic of bees; secondly, he installed a mechanism to open and close the pollen trap without disturbing them even if the adapter for Beehold tubes is mounted. Now, that is the magic of citizen science.

Modified hive entrance for INSIGNIA monitoring colony 1. A DIY mechanism to (de-)activate the pollen trap from outside and a landing board to ease the access of bees.
Scheme of the DIY mechanism designed by an Austrian citizen scientist.

Colony 1 – Bees not finding their way easily

Reminder: in colony 1 all of the four sampling matrixes are tested. Thus, bees not only have to get used to the pollen traps but also to the Beehold tubes and the corresponding adapter. This might be “overwhelming” for some of the colonies and in a consequence, several messages from worried citizen scientists arrived us during the last week. They all reported similar problems, observed in colony 1: bees have issues to find the right path into their colonies and they congregate in front of the hive entrance; bees show increased aggressive behavior; bees use the drone entrance to get into the hive and some of them were also observed to fly into the neighboring colonies.

Bees cluster in front of the hive entrance

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Map of study sites 2019

In 2019, INSIGNIA will sample in 4 countries. In Austria, Denmark, Greece and United Kingdom we have 4 to 5 apiaries with 3 colonies each. Below is a map with the locations that are studied!

In colony 1 all 4 sampling methods are applied

According to the 2019 study setup, colony 1 combines all 4 sampling methods. The combination of the beehold tubes and the pollen trap is not that simple. We have already shown the adapter we build to integrate the tubes.

Now it is needed to apply the adapter to the colony and make it bee-tight, which is tricky, as first of all bees often find an alternative way in and out their colony, and second because bees need to get used to how the hive entrance looks and where they can enter the colony. The way through the beehold tubes and later the pollen trap is not easy…

Colony 1 in Graz, Austria. For the moment we use plastic wrapped in Aluminium foil to make the rest of the trap bee-tight.
This was built by another citizen scientist from Austria. The problem with bees not finding their way will be observed and further reported on in the next days!