The Secret Life of Beehives

Author: Farah Hancock
Farah Hancock is a Newsroom reporter based in Auckland who writes on conservation, technology and health.

How much does a beehive worth of bees weigh? It’s the sort of question most people don’t bother to think about. For ModuSense founder Bruce Trevarthen it’s a crucial bit of knowledge.

The New Zealand company has launched sensor equipment to help apiarists know what’s happening inside their beehives from their laptop.

Traditionally knowing what’s going on in beehives placed in remote locations is impossible without a trip, sometimes by helicopter, to check on them. It’s often a case of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

“Typically, you put the beehive in and then five weeks later you fly in and bring the beehive out and hope you’ve achieved the numbers you want for the season.”

ModuSense’s sensors, which transmit data through cellular or satellite technology, tell beekeepers how heavy the hive is as well as the temperature, humidity and sound inside the hive. All this information is transmitted and appears on an online dashboard for customers.

This knowledge can save a hive in distress, as well as allow apiarists to wait until the perfect time to collect honey.

Trevarthen said the concept of monitoring with sensors is not new, but the packaging up the sensors into a system which can be used at an industrial level is something he hasn’t seen before.

“We’ve spent almost three years in pre-production, building test kit and working with our partners to really thrash them about, to put them through the rigours of life that a standard beehive will experience.”

He said the benefits of using the equipment can be substantial.

“We had a customer who delayed the retrieval of the hives by three days because they were still on the flow [collecting nectar]. They only knew that because of our gear, and they increase their yield by five times. Five tonnes of mānuka at roughly $150 a kilo is a pretty decent amount of additional revenue.”

The weight of a hive can offer apiarists a window into what their bees are up to. The daily schedule of the bees leaving and returning to the hive can be checked, as well as whether nectar has been plentiful, or scarce. As frames fill with honey the hive gets heavier. Alerts can be set through the ModuSense system for when hives reach a weight indicating they are full.


It’s not all about increasing yield though. Trevarthen said 10 percent of New Zealand’s almost 900,000 beehives die every winter.

“That’s 90,000 beehives. That strikes me as a problem and something that’s entirely preventable because one of the top three reasons for death in the winter is starvation.”

Weight sensors could be used to tell if the food inside the hives was dropping to a dangerously low level, while others can help indicate if the temperature inside the hive was dropping to low.

The temperature and humidity sensors, priced at $85 each, are affordable for hobbyists, but the weight sensor is aimed at industry.

For commercial operators putting a pallet of four hives into a remote area, the cost to equip them with weight and temperature and humidity sensors is about $1000 per hive.

“You’re looking at about $4000 for a pallet with a satellite controller. That’s going to be good for 10 years.”

Current customers tend to have between 1000 and 40,000 hives, but not each hive would have sensors.

“If you’ve got 40 hives in an apiary, you might put monitoring gear on four of them and that would give you an idea of how that site is operating.”

New Zealand’s industry has been growing and exports for the 2016/17 year were $329 million. Trevarthen hopes as well as domestic customers the sensors will have a global appeal.

“There are 90 million beehives in the world and it’s increasing, not decreasing. We believe we can help all honey farming and all bee keeping with sensors. You might not put a scale on the hive, because they are expensive but some of our internal sensors are much more cost effective.”

He said a French company has already been in touch interested in collaborating with ModuSense.

And in case you are wondering, a colony of bees weighs around 3.5 kilograms.