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An inside look at how robot beehives are saving bees

Beewise co-founder Eliyah Radzyner shows off the startup's robotic AI-powered beehive. Photos: Katie Fehrenbacher/Axios

On the edge of California's rolling farmlands, the co-founder of Beewise, Eliyah Radzyner, showed me how the company's AI-powered robotic hive can help beekeepers save honeybee colonies.

Why it matters: Honeybees pollinate the majority of the world's crops, but almost half of the colonies in the U.S. collapsed last year.

Details: The BeeHome 4 (pictured), which looks like a large filing cabinet, has space for up to 10 colonies that build out honeycombs across multiple frames (the same type of wooden frames that a traditional beekeeper uses).

  • Inside the enclosed box, a robotic arm gently lifts up the frames into a section where three cameras can scan them and detect any irregularities.
  • With 45% of bee colonies dying every year, traditional beekeepers are struggling with challenges like Varroa mites, pesticides, and habitat loss, all exacerbated by climate change.
  • Using the cameras and computer vision, the AI models can detect things like if the bees are hungry, covered in mites, or exposed to pesticides — and then take action if necessary.

Zoom in: If the AI detects mites in the hive, the robot can lift the frames and place them into a section of the box that heats each frame by 2 degrees, an increase hot enough to kill the mites but not the bees.

  • Likewise if the bees are hungry, the robot releases a syrup-like substance onto a food frame and inserts it next to the underfed bee frame.
  • If the box detects pesticides entering the hive, the unit can respond by closing the entrances, keeping the bees temporarily inside and safe from the toxic air outside.
  • A semitruck can carry up to 36 BeeHomes, or 360 hives, on its trailer, and the top of the boxes are covered in solar panels and a communication module.

Of note: Beewise's Radzyner was a commercial beekeeper before he started the company and says bees, with their complex decision-making processes, have a lot in common with humans.

  • Research shows how bee swarms, of several hundred bees, work together to find potential nesting holes in trees and then select the best one of the many options for their new home. It's an impressive form of group intelligence and collective decision-making.

Big picture: The BeeHome's simple, automated processes are how a computer can rescue bees in real time, more quickly and more effectively than a human beekeeper can alone.

  • Beewise is an example of how low-cost computing hardware and software are enabling some really unusual applications, like autonomous beekeeping.
  • If Beewise is able to get more of its BeeHomes in the hands of farmers around the world, it could save many more honeybees, and that's good for everyone.
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