Helping honey bees and beekeepers with BeeT
How would BeeT work in the real world? Who would use it and how would they use it? More importantly, how can we ensure BeeT is embraced? To explore these questions, we sought out experts, beekeepers and designers. They helped us prepare BeeT for real life conditions. Scroll down to learn more about how our design changed in response to feedback, practical problems and new information.
We started our project by talking to bee specialist Tjeerd Blacquière from Wageningen UR and Frank Moens, spokesperson for the Dutch association for Beekeepers. They assured us that the parasitic mite Varroa destructor is indeed the main cause for the high mortality of honey bees. With both, we discussed current methods to treat these mites. They explained that, in the Netherlands, beehives are treated year-round with combinations of formic acid, oxalic acid and thymol. Each of these compounds has its own disadvantages: formic acid has a very small margin between concentrations that get rid of Varroa and concentrations that are harmful to bees. Oxalic acid treatment is only effective in the fall and winter. Lastly, thymol has a narrow temperature range and contaminates the honey with an unpleasant taste. Moreover, apparently these methods have failed to protect honey bees1. It can be concluded that our approach has to be more effective and easy to use than current methods. Furthermore, it should not contaminate the honey, an important product for beekeepers.
Additionally, we have spoken to Bob Mulder, an expert in strategic communication at Wageningen UR. He introduced us to the ‘don’t change the consumer, change the technology’ principle. This principle dictates that for a technology to be adopted, it should require little or no adaptation from the consumer. He also agreed to become official advisor of our team.
Specificity, Regulation and Biocontainment
Based on these requirements, we decided to focus on three key aspects: specificity, regulation and biocontainment. Below, we discuss how those topic were incorporated in the final design.
Specificity focuses on how we can make an effective treatment to Varroa that leaves bees and humans unharmed. There are many chemicals that can be used to kill mites, but most are also harmful to honey bees to some extent. Therefore, our approaches aimed for a toxin that would truly be a better alternative. When testing of the toxins, we encountered a major hurdle: Varroa mites are extremely vulnerable in laboratory settings and often die irrespectively of the treatment. To overcome this, we developed an in vitro assay for determining Varroa toxicity.
Our regulation focused on two aspects: minimizing background toxin presence in the beehive and ensuring that misapplication of BeeT would not result in damage to beehives or beekeepers. Initially, we intended for our toxin to be present in the beehive at all times. If it is not harmful to bees or humans, what would it matter? We thought of it as a preventative measure. However, we were told by Tjeerd Blaquiere that resistance of Varroa is a recurring problem. Literature2 told us that resistance can be slowed if treatment of Varroa is only applied when needed, so we realized toxin production should be strictly regulated.
From the very start of our project, we were aware of the potential dangers of using synthetic biology in a system as volatile as the beehive. However, the RIVM (Dutch governmental institute for national well being and environment) challenged us to investigate the 'safety-by-design' in our project. Additionally, beekeepers voiced their dislike of GMOs, and we realized that beekeepers would never use BeeT if they would not be entirely convinced of its safety. With this in mind, we tried to implement two complementary biocontainment systems.
To get beekeepers to use BeeT it should not just work well, it also has to fit well with their practicalities. We asked design student Thieu Custers, from the Design Academy Eindhoven, to develop a visual prototype. Below you can find his design and explanation.
The next step: does it work?
During our project, we did not have time to finalize BeeT and test it in the field. However, using an open source model (beehave) as a basis, we determined how effective BeeT needs to be to have a significant impact on bee survival. We adapted beehave to our needs by adding a BeeT module, and to make our predictions as accurate as possible we used real life weather data as input. Apart from preparing this tool to measure effectiveness for future use, we got some interesting information from the model about the ideal time of application of BeeT. From Frank Moens we heard that Varroa mites are best combated in autumn. In that way, strong winter bees can be made that are more likely to survive the winter. Moreover, there is no risk of contaminating the honey, as it is not harvested in that time of the year. However, from the beehave model we could conclude that BeeT is more effective when applied in spring. We think this is important information to consider for further development of BeeT and in giving advice to beekeepers on how to use it.
1. Seitz, N., Traynor, K. S., Steinhauer, N., Rennich, K., Wilson, M. E., Ellis, J. D., ... & Delaplane, K. S. (2016). A national survey of managed honey bee 2014–2015 annual colony losses in the USA. Journal of Apicultural Research, 1-12. ↩
2. Goodwin, M., & Van Eaton, C. (2001). Control of Varroa. A guide for New Zealand Beekeepers. New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF). Wellington, New Zealand. ↩