How-To: Bee hive scale, weigh yours for science

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Weigh your hive! Trerick writes:

There is currently a NASA-sponsored nation-wide research project that asks volunteer beekeepers to take daily weight measurements of their bee hives. The data is used to estimate when nectar flows begin in order to answer how changing climate effects honey bees.

The goal is to build an accurate, electronic bee hive scale for under $50 that allows anyone to weight 4 hives per minute – up to 250 lbs each – without materially disturbing the colony.

In my first year as a beekeeper, I had 2 out of 3 hives swarm. I think. I experienced a Tulip Poplar nectar flow. I think. I saw bees gather nectar – some days more than other days. I think. I say, I think, because I am led to believe that these things happened and I saw evidence that they did occur but I cannot be sure. And if they did occur, I cannot tell you if it was more or less than previous occurrences. But if I could have weighed the hive once or twice a day, I would have known for sure:

    * I would know the population of the runaway swarm …estimated at 3500 bees per pound.
    * I would know the mass of nectar (and pollen) gathered during the day and of water evaporated at night. One pound equals roughly 1.04 US pints.
    * I would know the number of bees foraging by monitoring the loss of weight in bees leaving in the morning.
    * I would know the rate of growth of daily nectar collection as a nectar flow began.
    * I could compare my hives with the hives of others and with my own hives in previous years.

Lord Kelvin said, “To measure is to know.” If I could weigh a hive, I would know a lot more than I do now…

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4 thoughts on “How-To: Bee hive scale, weigh yours for science

  1. Pretty elegant solution, and neatly executed. It never occurred to me to weigh a beehive, but thinking about it now, you could go nuts with this. Inexpensive load cells from eBay ($10-25) coupled with some flavor of open-source datalogging could yield a much finer time resolution (and probably a couple of gram weight resolution). Then you could monitor bee traffic per unit time and all the other neat parameters mentioned in the posting. Still not as cheap as the posted solution, but could yield some additional data.

  2. Can any beekeepers guess at what is in the top middle of his frame of bees? Something to introduce a queen? A medicine delivery system of some kind?

    Great build, though.

  3. I think you’re confusing two things: the commercial beekeeper’s practice to estimate crop, which is what is being measured here, and a newbee’s need to know what’s actually going on. I’m one too. We only tend to heft in the autumn to check there are still enough stores.
    From the second angle, you’re not going to measure the same thing every time: do you want to measure in the wee small hours when the girls are all snuggled in or at midday when they’re out on the buzzle? Perhaps both, so we can see both weight of bees (the difference intra-day) and weight of stores (the difference between middays) growing. At peak, the simple weight of the foragers can be 20lb or more.
    And to do that, you really need to be able to weigh the entire shebang, which in turn means you need four cells taking all the weight, one on each corner – ie not a sscale you can move from hive to hive. Fortunately, the weight range is close to four times a human weight, ie we can use the cells from cheap bathroom scales. Also, not to monitor while we’re working on the hive with all the supers off, and to take into account the weight of new supers and the like added. And next, how to get the data home?
    So, put all four outputs into an Arduino, sum, and store. That also needs power, perhaps a solar panel on the roof, and and and…
    This can only really be achieved on a commercial scale, and as the market’s not there, I can’t see it being worthwhile. In any case, it’s not going to tell you when the colony’s going to swarm, as that can be affected by crowding, so add supers for living space, which can buy time, and above all else watch the queen cells.
    Yes, a queen can live for 2-3 years without needing replacement, but as the colony’s likely to swarm every year, you’re going to be involved in some kind of AS management every year, which means you’re going to be mussing with Her Majesty every year. The only way she’ll survive is if you split the colony, and who needs that kind of exponential growth? You’ll be far better off demareeing (splitting with the intention to recombine once the urge to swarm is past) and deciding on the better queen when you come to recombine just before the height of the flow. So, if you’re requeening every year, decide to be swarm-proactive and not reactive, the only question then being what action you intend taking and when.
    Which has very little to do with the weight of the colony. What weighing can be useful for is in minimal configuration in winter, watching not so much for growth as dwindle as the stores are used: if you can intervene only when needful, when the weight of the colony starts to get close to the weight of empty boxes and comb, plus say three pounds for 10 000 overwintering bees, then you’ll be able to step in with feed only when really needed. If by Christmas they’ve dropped the 20lb of stores you left them, then you know it’s time to feed. It depends on the length of the winter, too.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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