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Online Data Management Tool Helps Beekeepers Track Hives, Doesn’t Miss a Buzz

June 25, 2012 |

For beekeepers, it takes more than just the honey to make the money—and a viable beekeeping operation.

Good record keeping is necessary for efficient and sustainable beekeeping, industry professionals say. When a beekeeper goes out to his yard to inspect his hives, there are many details to track—how many hives are in each yard, which queens are in which hives, which medical treatments were applied and much more. When left to memory, facts can easily be forgotten. Meanwhile, paper notebooks can be misplaced or become disorganized.

Beekeeping data management tool Hive Tracks was created to provide a solution to this problem. James Wilkes and Mark Henson—who are both computer science and beekeeping professionals—made the web application to help beekeepers keep all their information up-to-date in an online database. Hive Tracks, which was first released in 2010, uses cloud-based services. That means Hive Tracks’ users can enter their data and have it saved to secure and remote online servers and access it with ease.

“What we’re trying to address is that need for record keeping for beekeepers to put (data) in a place … where it’s organized, where it’s accessible and where you can look at it in ways that help you make sense out of the data,” Wilkes said.

With Hive Tracks, beekeepers get a wide range of capabilities, from basic record keeping and report generation to the use of QR codes that allow beekeepers to merely scan an image and immediately pull up data on a particular hive.

Hive Tracks is used in more than 50 countries, though the strongest concentration of users is in the southeast United States, Wilkes said. Most of its users are “backyard beekeepers,” meaning they have 50 or less hives. The application has thousands of registered users. (Wilkes said it’s in the 5,000 range.)

Wilkes and Henson have some major plans for Hive Tracks, which include new mobile capabilities, commercial versions of the application, and potential use as a master database, Wilkes said.

The Workings of Hive Tracks

Beekeepers using Hive Tracks can track various details. After setting up an online account, they can input the size of their yards, create Google map yard displays, create notes about the yard and even check weather conditions through a constant weather feed. Next, the beekeepers digitally populate their yards with hives, or bee colonies, and keep track of details such as the hive hardware structure (which can be edited throughout the season). There are options to keep track of the queen bee information and things like medical treatments.

Hive Tracks main page with general hive tracking information

With Hive Tracks, the beekeeper has a couple of options for inputting data. He or she can directly take a smart phone or tablet (or a device that has Internet access) out to the yard and input the inspection information directly onto Hive Tracks. Or, the beekeeper can print out a blank inspection sheet (which reflects the website), write down the information and later enter it on the site. Reports can be downloaded as PDF, Excel and Word documents.

Wilkes says he believes the most important piece of the application is the inspections mechanism, which is used when beekeepers go out and observe their hives.

Hive Tracks yard view showing hives and inspection detail

“You might look at the queen’s laying pattern,” he said. “You might look and see what your honey stores are. You might look and see different pathogens in the colony. … We have check boxes and ways that you can record that information.”

He noted that pretty much any type of inspection information about the hives can be recorded, creating a log that the beekeepers can later refer back to when making key decisions.

Another interesting feature allows beekeepers to use QR codes, or images that work like bar codes, Wilkes said.

“You can print that (QR code) out, laminate it and put it on your hive,” Wilkes said. “If you scan that, then it will take you directly to the inspection page for that particular hive.”

Wilkes said that Hive Tracks is particularly a useful tool for beekeepers seeking Certified Naturally Grown status, which requires rigorous record keeping.

Getting Started

The idea for Hive Tracks came about in 2008 when one of the founders, Wilkes, realized he needed such an application himself. He has his own bee yard. (Wilkes is also the chair of computer science and a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. and owner of Faith Mountain Farm.)

James Wilkes and Mark Henson, the founders of Hive Tracks

Wilkes said he was out in his yard trying to recall which steps he had previously taken with his hives, but he couldn’t remember. It was then that he decided he would try to create his own record-keeping program. However, it wasn’t until 2009 when Wilkes met Henson—a professional software engineer and beekeeper—that his plan started taking shape. Henson had the software development experience to make it happen, and he had even been considering a similar idea on his own. The two became partners. Mark worked on the development and James worked on design, testing and marketing, among other things.

Wilkes and Henson launched their first official version of the application in August 2010 at an Eastern Apicultural Society meeting that was held in Boone, N.C. where they both lived, Wilkes said. They released a second improved version of the application in January 2011 at an American Beekeeping Federation conference. Since then, Wilkes and Henson have used word of mouth, presentations at beekeeping organizations, social media and advertisements to promote Hive Tracks.

Hive Tracks is the sole product of Blowing Rock Software, LLC, a company that Wilkes and Henson own together.

Creating a Buzz

So far, Hive Tracks’ Facebook page has served as a sounding board for users. There have been praises such as “Hive Tracks is turning into a record keeping live saver!” There have also been updates about glitches, questions about usage and many inquiries about when a mobile app will be available.

Wilkes and Henson have been responding to users’ questions and suggestions. They plan to launch a mobile app for both the Android and iOS platforms in the next few weeks. It will be a “lightweight” version of Hive Tracks, which will mainly focus on the inspections process. (A mobile app comes in handy when there is limited Internet access in the yard. The data can be saved straight to the phone and later synced to Hive Tracks online.)

Rob Evans, owner of Evans Cedar Beehives in Marmora, N.J., is a new user of Hive Tracks. Evans said he discovered the application about six months ago and has been testing out some of the features.

“This allows for an easier way to access that information on a hive-to-hive basis instead of on a date-by-date basis, and you don’t need to have a specific notebook for each hive,” Evans said. “I’ve seen a couple of different pieces of software, different applications that do this type of information. This definitely seems to be the most customizable.”

However, he does also have some concerns about using his iPad in the yard.

“If you wear gloves and you wear all the gear, it makes writing kind of hard writing, let alone typing or using a touchpad or a touch screen,” Evans said.  “I can’t image how I would take the device out with me and where I would put it without it possibly breaking.”

Industry professionals who are familiar with Hive Tracks say the tool is innovative (there are very few other web applications out there like it) and plays an important role in improved beekeeping practices.

“I preach to beekeepers all the time that they need to take really good notes and keep accurate records of their colonies in order to become good beekeepers,” said David Tarpy, associate professor of entomology and extension apiculturalist at North Carolina State University. “However, a lot of beekeepers just don’t do that. … So making note taking and record keeping easier will go a long way to improving overall beekeeping management.”

He noted that what he particularly likes about Hive Tracks is its scalability—it can easily be used for individual hives or hundreds of hives.

Looking Ahead

Wilkes said he and Henson have big plans for Hive Tracks. Besides the mobile app, they are also working on commercializing the web application, particularly through alternative revenue streams. For example, they are looking at advertising revenue options and subscription models in which customers could pay for additional tiers of service. Functions currently offered by Hive Tracks would remain free.

Other revenue options include customized software development based on the Hive Tracks model, and charging researchers for access to collective Hive Track data, with information about individual beekeepers kept private.

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