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James Wilkes, chairperson of the Department of Computer Science at ASU, is part of the BEE
Informed Partnership.
Photo by Marie Freeman

Originally published: 2012-08-28 15:29:22
Last modified: 2012-08-28 15:29:22

Computer science pollinates world's beekeeping industry

by Susan King

What's the connection between a beehive and a computer? Ask James Wilkes.

You may know Wilkes as a local beekeeper and a regular vendor at the Watauga County Farmers' Market where he and his family sell honey, baked goods, produce, cut flowers and eggs from Faith Mountain Farm (

You may not know him as Dr. James Wilkes, chairperson of the Department of Computer Science at Appalachian State University.

While his two vocations might seem unrelated, they are interlaced in an ongoing endeavor that has a practical, positive impact on our local community.

Most farmers depend on bees to pollinate their crops. Since 2006, beekeepers across the country have lost, on average, 25.3 percent of their overwintering hives. Although its cause is not known, colony collapse disorder, which leaves entire hives dead or abandoned, is implicated in a large percentage of these losses, along with other perennial challenges faced by beekeepers, such as extremely cold winters, pesticides, viruses and parasites such as the varroa mite.

While a host of scholars have focused their research on finding the causes of CCD, another partnership -- the BEE Informed Partnership -- was developed among 13 scientists and researchers from eight major institutions to determine what keeps hives healthy.

Wilkes is one of the 13 scholars, and Appalachian is the one of the eight institutions participating in this national study with global significance. The goal of the study is simple: reduce colony loss and increase the availability of pollinating units over all.

In May 2011, BIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a $5 million grant to continue and enhance a winter loss survey begun in 2006 to gather data from participating beekeepers about the management practices they use and the degree of loss they've experienced.

The survey will be conducted every year of the five-year grant period. More than 5,000 beekeepers have participated to date.

From the data gathered, BIP has created a comprehensive honeybee health database to promote best management practices based on scientific evidence.

Organized by season, region, subregion, operation size, operation type, management philosophy and loss by income, the database covers everything from which supplements and medicines are tied to consistently lower percentages of hive loss, to whether carbohydrate feed or protein feed makes for healthier, hardier bees. In short, BIP offers all participating beekeepers an almost endless resource of expert advice --  and it's free (; click on the "Results" tab).

At the same time the BIP grant proposal was submitted, Wilkes and Department of Computer Science research associate Mark Henson developed and launched "Hive Tracks," a free Web application that automatically records details that are easy to forget -- outside weather conditions, improvement or decline in bee health, tone of the hive -- and makes them accessible and secure. (Create a new account or take a test drive at

Are Wilkes and other farmers, beekeepers and research scholars saving the planet one beehive at a time? You know, they just might be. 

And if you are an amateur or a professional beekeeper, you can help.  Click on the "Sign up -- Participate" button at the BEE Informed website, and share your best practices for keeping bees alive during the winter.