Remotely monitoring honey bee colonies during pollination cycles can transform the way we model, understand, and manage the pollination input. Sensors and models being developed by iPollinate consortium were used to trial and demonstrate the capabilities and challenges of the current state of the technology in hybrid onion seed production. Onion (Allium cepa L.) seed, particularly hybrid seed, are heavily dependent on bee pollinator activity for pollination, seed set and yields. In commercial seed production managed honey bee colonies are used to provide adequate pollination. For seed set, honey bee pollinators move pollen between male fertile and male sterile (female) plants. Pollination quality is expressed as the quantity of pollen moved to the female flower; this depends on the pollinators’ activity and their mobility between the flowers of the two lines. A major challenge for onion seed pollination is that the onion flowers are unfavourable to bees, which can be drawn to alternative forage nearby. The objective of this trial was to demonstrate how the bee counter can remotely monitor bee pollination activity in real time to enable growers to make informed decisions on hive placement that optimise crop yield.

Trials were conducted during crop bloom from late April to early June. Thirty monitored hives were located around two separate onion fields according to usual pollination practices. The hives were monitored with In Hive Sensors, Bee Counters, and Hive Scales. In addition weather stations were positioned in each field.  All hives were assessed at the beginning and the end of pollination period for accurate count of bee, brood, and honey frames. In addition manual counts of bees in the crop were carried out for the duration of pollination. The trial has generated valuable insights to foraging behaviour that will help to improve management of this agricultural input:

•   Weak hives, with low foraging activity can be identified in real time, enabling investigation or replacement by the beekeeper.

•   Distinct patterns of bee foraging activity were identified, with peaks in activity early in the morning, and also late afternoon/early evening

•   Year to year analysis of bee foraging activity and crop yields is still to be completed, but this will inform strategies for stocking hives and also potentially help with yield forecasting.

Hive fitted with bee counter (left) and groups of hives positioned in the field