Harmony in the Hive: Monitoring Beehives to Redefine Agriculture

Genius can strike at any time, but it seems especially appropriate that the idea for Bryan Hoyt’s company came to them mid--flight. Making idle chit-chat on a plane back to his hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, a friend of his happened to be seated next to a seasoned beekeeper. What started as friendly small talk quickly turned into a big idea, with even bigger implications for the global agricultural industry.

“As a beekeeper, you need to know exactly what’s going on in your colony, but many of these hives are in remote locations, hundreds of miles apart,” said Hoyt. “Though the work of bees has an incredible impact on our modern world, the practices used to monitor their activity are still quite antiquated.”

Not long after the plane landed, Hoyt’s mind was already buzzing with possible solutions. As the founder of Brush Technology, an internet-of-things design company, he’s well-versed in thinking about how technology can improve the functionality of everyday objects. After a few late nights of market research, and talking it over with his brothers and business partners, Ben and Berwyn, the Hoyt team founded Hivemind, a satellite-connected beehive monitoring system.

Outside of hobbyists and beekeepers, this technology could have a tremendous global impact. Over one-third of the world’s food is pollination dependent. At a glance, bees pollinate over 70 types of crops, make 6,000 tons of honey and contribute over $350 billion—yes, billion—to the world economy. Yet for reasons that researchers are still trying to figure out, bee colonies are in grave decline.

For a team of creative problem solvers, nothing spurs innovation quite like unique constraints. And in the weather-worn and electricity-deprived rural farmland of New Zealand, there are more than a few design challenges.

“It had to be waterproof, incredibly durable and easy to use for people who are traditionally unfamiliar with technology,” said Hoyt. “You know you’re designing a good product when you start asking questions like, ‘What if a cow steps on this? Can we make this cow-proof?’"

The technology that Hoyt uses to run Hivemind must be just as strong and responsive as his products. Whether he’s designing in the field or developing at the office, his ThinkPad acts as a reliable research assistant.

“There have been multiple times I’ve been sitting in the rain with my ThinkPad, gathering data in a field while connected via satellite to a series of beehives—which admittedly, is a funny looking scenario,” he laughed. “My machine can survive the rural elements and has a replaceable keyboard, which is key when you spend hours working outside,” he said. Moreover, ThinkPads embody the “it just works” mentality that Hoyt strives to create in his own technology.

After many iterations, and several conversations with local beekeepers, Hoyt and his team designed wireless scales and sensors that can be placed underneath a hive. In communication with a satellite hub, the machines are able to detect nearly every metric imaginable—then send up-to-minute updates straight to one’s phone or computer.

“In the beginning, we mainly tracked the weight of the hive, which illustrated how much honey was being produced,” said Hoyt. “But over time, we’ve added new sensors to record humidity, rainfall, bee population and activity inside the hive.”

For professionals, these metrics aren’t just nice—they’re safeguards that can save them thousands of dollars. In one scenario, a local beekeeper was having lunch after a full morning of collecting honey in the field. Suddenly, he got an alert from Hivemind that showed an unexpected and drastic drop in the weight of his hive. Quickly donning his beekeeping suit and head veil, he rushed outside to discover a swarm of wasps had attacked the hive, robbing the bees of their hard earned honey. Because of the instant update, he was able to restore the hive to full strength.

“For us, that’s what this is all about: making people’s lives better, and in the process, make the world a better place,” said Hoyt. “Yes, we’re a business, but we’re fuelled by a genuine love of the environment and agriculture.”

Pollination is a harder metric to measure than honey, but if Hivemind’s track record shows anything, it’s the ability to evolve and adapt over time. “We must learn to develop more sustainable agricultural practices, and a key factor in assessing these alternative methods will be the ability to accurately monitor and control hive health,” said Hoyt. “More than from a sales perspective, this will become an environmental issue for all.”

The intersection of agriculture and technology is still relatively untilled territory, and Hivemind is among the first pathbreakers in this fertile space. Already, they are thinking about new ways to improve their technology, supplementing their satellite-based systems with wifi capability, as well as adding waterproof speakers that announce the hive’s weight. Given that Hivemind was conceived at 40,000 feet in the air, the sky is truly the limit for the Hoyt brothers. 

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.