6th graders are helping save bees from killer mites

Ann Arbor 6th graders and their mentor, Palani Palani-Appan.

Ever since they arrived in the United States in 1987, red, hairy varroa mites have been attacking honey bees. They get into a hive, and within a short time, all the bees are dead. Along with pesticides and viruses, the mites are behind the collapse of much of the U.S. population of wild and managed honey bees.

Enter sixth grade inventors from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who have patented a digitally connected alarm system to warn bee-keepers of mite infestation. Their invention inspects bees as they enter a hive, detects the tell-tale presence of a red spot -- the mite -- on bees, shoots a photo and emails an alert to the bee-keeper.

Between the lines: The students' alarm system, their entry in a Lego-sponsored invention competition, addresses one of the biggest problems in the bee crisis: a time gap in noticing a hive infestation. Since bee-keepers are alerted, they can act to attack the mites.

These young inventors were finalists in the competition, organized by FIRST, a global science and technology youth group led by the inventor Dean Kamen. The theme in this year's competition was how to help wildlife. The winners of the $20,000 grand prize, announced Tuesday evening in Washington, DC, were an Ontario, Canada, group of students with the invention of a way to monitor the water intake of horses.

How the bees idea works: Palani Palani-Appan, a Toyota engineer serving as a mentor for the Ann Arbor students, told Axios that they worked wholly with off-the-shelf technology. They started with a cheap Raspberry Pi PC that they fashioned into a motion detector for the interior of the hive. Then they used a Python program to inspect for the red spots. "The biggest problem has always been that you don't have time to inspect every hive," Palani-Appan said. "Now, the first day you know the mites are there, and there are many ways to solve it."