Global food security is dependent on billions of unpaid workers: the honeybees, native bees, birds, bats and butterflies that pollinate our crops. Of the world's 115 most important food crops, 87 rely on animal pollinators, accounting for 35% of global food production. Pollinators contribute more than US$24 billion to the US economy each year, and honeybees are responsible for more than US$15 billion of that.
Some of the US's most significant cash crops, including almonds, are exclusively pollinated by honeybees. In California alone, the almond industry depends on the pollination services of some 1.4 million beehives each year to yield 80% of the worldwide almond production - a harvest that's worth US$4.8 billion.
But over the past few decades, bee populations have been in rapid decline. The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US has dropped from an estimated 6 million in 1947 to just 2.5 million today, prompting President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum on creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators.
The decline in honeybee populations is believed to be multi-factorial, but one of the most alarming causes is colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which there is a rapid, unexpected and catastrophic loss of the majority of bees in a hive. A probable cause of CCD is infestation by a mite called Varroa destructor, which transfers viruses to the bees and can quickly wipe out an entire colony.
But now, smart technology is coming to the rescue. The MiteNot project led by Professor Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota in the US is using a machine-to-machine (M2M) module from Gemalto and software from agricultural tech company Eltopia to try to prevent CCD and reverse the decline in the global honeybee population.
The solution is a flexible circuitboard that slots into a beehive. It is embedded with sensors that monitor 32 specific elements within the hive to identify the point at which the bees have capped their honeycomb cells, which is when the female Varroa destructor mites lay their eggs. A controller then sends sensor data to the M2M module, which connects wirelessly to Eltopia's BeeSafe application. The controller then increases the heat within the hive to a temperature that destroys the unfertilized mite eggs without harming the bees.
MiteNot is biodegradable, non-toxic and free of pesticides.
Professor Spivak said: "The MiteNot project holds the most promise to turn the bee crisis around than any other idea that has come along in a very long time - maybe ever."