The decline in bees is a global problem. With more than 75% of the world’s crops relying on some form of pollination for yield and quality, without bees and other pollinators, crops such as tomatoes, coffee, and almonds, would disappear.
The causes of bee decline are complex and multifaceted, made up of factors including land use changes, parasites, pesticides, climate change, and loss of biodiversity including its impact on bee nutrition. But precisely what factors contribute, and how they do so, remain unclear. This is where big data analytics and AI come in.
Few plants self-pollinate and many rely on a wide variety of animals for pollination including bees and other insects, birds, bats, lizards and even monkeys and squirrels. And the decline in bees is already impacting on farming. The issue is so great that in southwest China, where bees have essentially been eradicated through pesticides and changes in land use, apple and pear trees are pollinated by hand. This is done by carrying pots of pollen and using paintbrushes to pollinate every flower.
And this is an issue moving up political agendas. In October 2019, Members of the European Parliament blocked a move by the European Commission to weaken bee protection from pesticides. They are calling for the impact of pesticides on bee numbers to be properly tested and a new law to better protect bees. This month the European Parliament will debate the issue again at a Plenary Session in Strasbourg and vote on resolutions with suggestions for measures.
So what role can data analytics and AI have in supporting our understanding of what is going on.
What is clear is we need to better understand the relationship between bees, agricultural production and the environment, including our impact on it. Indeed, one of the key components of the EU Commission’s European Pollinators Initiative is to improve knowledge to better understand what is going on.
This is where projects such as the World Bee Project come in. This Community Interest Company, a British social enterprise, is the first private organisation to launch a global honey bee monitoring initiative.
The mission of the World Bee Project is to increase food security and livelihood by combining Cloud computing with bee research. The aim is to provide beekeepers, researchers, farmers and government with new insights and knowledge to better understand and develop solutions to the challenges of bee and biodiversity decline and climate change.
The vision of the World Bee Project is to delivery up to date knowledge to smallholder farmers around the work to enhance the essential contribution of pollinators. Core to this is putting the natural world at centre stage in public policy and enshrine environmental protections at the national level.
Data is collected via an open platform. The data is standardised, a crucial factor in providing scientists, policy makers, and the public, with the consistent information they need including real-time data about the state of bee hives. And every farmer and bee keeper can contribute.
By building a network of farmers and bee keepers, and combining data from sensors with AI and Cloud computing technology, it will be possible to generate and access new insights. The data is from multiple sources including farming data, weather feeds, satellite feeds, and live hive data. The application of the data can lead to increased agricultural yields, and better predictive analytics.
The World Bee Project are also establishing a Bee Mark© certification scheme for the verification of natural honey, which will be supported via blockchain. This means us as consumers can have a direct role in countering ‘Honey Laundering’ and supporting bee-friendly supply chains.
It’s increasingly clear that AI and data analytics has a real role to play in helping us understand our natural environment. And it is through this insight we can take positive and evidence based steps to support the environment, biodiversity, and improve global food security.
Each one of us has an individual responsibility towards protecting bees and we should all make pollinator-friendly choices. Even growing flowers at home to feed bees contributes to this effort. [Graziano da Silva, former Director General, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.]
Sophie is a writer and consultant at Keyah Consulting. She’s fascinated by all things data and AI — the good, the bad, and the ugly.