This week we welcome back to the podcast Hailey Scofield and Nathan Oakes. They joined us back in November, 2019, when they were nominated as the one of the 18 finalists in the Empire State Development and Cornell University’s Center for Regional...
This week we welcome back to the podcast Hailey Scofield and Nathan Oakes. They joined us back in November, 2019, when they were nominated as the one of the 18 finalists in the Empire State Development and Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement for “Grow-NY” – a food innovation and agricultural technology business challenge. They introduced us to their ‘bee laser’ for the automatic removal (or ‘zapping’) of varroa from the body of a honey bee.
Jump ahead 27 months and they’ve moved from upstate New York to just outside Austin, Texas and are about to release their new product – the bee laser frame. They’ve gone through multiple iterations of the laser, refining their approach, placement, software and hardware. They’ve settled on placing the laser in the corner of the frame with an opening just big enough for the passage of a single honey bee. If the laser detects a varroa clinging to the bee, it gets zapped, explodes and dies. They honey bee is none the wiser and goes on about her business. If no varroa is detected, the bee is counted and that’s it until the next bees passes through. At the end of the day, a beekeeper can get a report of the number of bees that passed through the frame and the number of varroa detected and the number of times the laser fired. Through the software the beekeeper can get an understanding of the colony’s mite load.
It sounds like science fiction. It is definitely science… but fiction? They say not! Listen in to the episode to learn more about the Bee Laser and check out their updated website for more information.
Also on this week’s episode, Northern Bee Books presents “Bee Books Old and New with Kim Flottum”. This week, Kim reviews three books: Charles Dadant That Bee Man From Champagne, An Eyewitness Account of Early American Beekeeping: The Autobiography of A.I. Root , and Practical Small Scale Queen Rearing Using The Miller Method. All are good reads and provide great information on the history of beekeeping and practical bee management techniques.
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Links and websites mentioned in this podcast:
We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer service, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com
Thanks to Strong Microbials for their support of Beekeeping Today Podcast. Find out more about heir line of probiotics in our Season 3, Episode 12 episode and from their website: https://www.strongmicrobials.com
This episode is brought to you by Global Patties! Global Patties is a family business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honey bees. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will help ensure that they produce strong and health colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Global offers a variety of standard patties, as well as custom patties to meet your specific needs. Visit them today at http://globalpatties.com and let them know you appreciate them sponsoring this episode!
Thanks for Northern Bee Books for their sponsorship of Bee Books: Old & New with Kim Flottum. Northern Bee Books is the publisher of bee books available worldwide from their website or from Amazon and bookstores everywhere. They are also the publishers of The Beekeepers Quarterly and Natural Bee Husbandry. Check them out today!
We want to also thank 2 Million Blossoms as a sponsor of the podcast. 2 Million Blossoms is a regular podcast featuring interviews with leading bee and insect researchers in the world of pollination, hosted by Dr. Kirsten Traynor.
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Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott
Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC
Jeff Ott: Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast presented by Bee Culture. Beekeeping Today Podcast is your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.
Kim Flottum: I'm Kim Flottum.
Global Patties: Hey, Jeff, and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honey bees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of Patty is right for your area and your honeybees.
Global offers a variety of standard patties as well as custom patties to meet your needs. No matter where you are, global is ready to serve you out of their manufacturing plants in Airdrie, Alberta, and in Butte, Montana, or from distribution depots across the continent. Visit them today at www.globalpatties.com.
Jeff: Thanks Sherry, and thank you Global Patties. You know each week we get to talk about how much we appreciate our sponsor support, and we know you'd rather we get right to talk about beekeeping. However, our super sponsors are critical to help making all of this happen, from the transcripts and hosting fees and software and hardware and microphones and recorders and subscriptions, whatever, they enable each episode. With that, thanks to Bee Culture magazine for continuing their presenting sponsorship of this podcast. Bee Culture has been the magazine for American beekeeping since 1873. Subscribe to Bee Culture today.
We also want to thank Two Million Blossoms as a sponsor of this episode. Two Million Blossoms is dedicated to protecting all pollinators. Listen to Kirsten Traynor and Two Million Blossoms at twomillionblossoms.com, and that is with the number two, available from the website or from wherever you download and listen to your shows. Hey, everybody, thanks for joining us. We're really, really happy you're here. Hey, Kim, last day of February, we're going to start spring. I can't wait.
Kim: Yes, I'm looking for the ground because it's still covered with snow.
Jeff: [chuckles] What comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, right?
Kim: Yes. Dream on. I think the lion thing won this year. It's been cold and it's been wet and it's been snowy, but it's winter. What can you expect?
Jeff: Yes, it just drives me crazy this time of year.
Kim: Yes, it does, crazy capital letters, bold underline.
Jeff: You have an exciting weekend coming up. You, Jim, and Jerry Hayes from Bee Culture are all going to be in Wooster for the Tri-County meeting. That's a big event in Northern Ohio.
Kim: It is. It's probably the biggest meeting in Ohio during the course of the year. Ohio beekeepers up there too, but this is a big one that's been going on for a lot of years. Jim will be there, myself will be there, Jerry will be there with Bee Culture magazine. Keith Delaplane the editor of ABC and Dave Tarpy one of the contributing authors of ABC will be there. We're going to have over 100 signed copies of ABC. I'll just add this carefully, I'll be there selling my books.
Kim: If you are inclined, stop by, but yes, I look forward to it. It's going to be a good meeting and I haven't been to a big meeting in over a couple of years, so it'll be fun to get out.
Jeff: Well, it'll be good. You'll be there signing books and T-shirts and arms and whatever anybody wants you to sign, right?
Kim: Whatever you want signed, you got it. Also, Jim and I will be there and we're going to be talking to both people attending the meeting and the vendors there looking at-- we're slanting, at least that's what it's looking like right now, from the people who are attending, what do you looking for, what do you need this year, and from the vendors' perspective, what's new this year, what do you got that's going to help people keep bees better?
Jeff: You mentioned that Betterbee's going to be there as well, right?
Kim: Betterbee will be there. I think most of the major vendors are going to be there. Several names I haven't recognized. If you're looking for information, I don't know where registration is. They're cutting it off at a thousand, and the last I looked was more than a week ago and it was pushing 300, so I suspect they'll be close.
Jeff: Yes. We'll have links to the tri-county meeting in the show notes just for anybody who might be in Northeast Ohio or at Northern Ohio who might want to check it out.
Kim: One of the things that may happen, Kathy and I have been talking about it back before COVID and all this, we were doing Facebook live events at big meetings, the federation meeting, and the honey producers, and it's on the platter, we may try that again. If we do, we'll announce it and you can go look.
Jeff: One of the other things we wanted to mention regardless of politics is we know we have listeners in Ukraine and we want to send out our best wishes and hopes and positive thoughts for those who might be suffering because of the politics and the war that's going on there.
Kim: Yes. It's a whole bunch of duck and cover. I feel sorry for them. I hope they're doing okay. What else can you say?
Jeff: Yes, not much. Sending strength and resilience and best wishes to our Ukrainian listeners. Kim, coming up, we have a new edition for Bee Books: Old and New with Kim Flottum, but before we get to that, we have an interview, a return of Hailey Scofield and Nathan Oakes from Combplex. This should be good.
Kim: Yes. I'm looking forward to the update on the Combplex thing. Killing varroa mites with lasers in a hive is just fascinating. This is science fiction. This is Star Wars. This is neat. [chuckles]
Jeff: Yes. R2-D2there taking care of your honeybees. That's pretty neat. I'm looking forward to that as well, but first, let's hear your Bee Books: Old and New with Kim Flottum.
Northern Bee Books: Welcome to Bee Books: Old and New brought to you by Northern Bee Books, publishers and sellers of fine books on bees, beekeeping, and the global beekeeping industry, and our very own Growing Planet Media. Here's Kim with today's Bee Books, Old and New.
Kim: Well, hello, again, welcome again to Beekeeping Today's book reviews of Bee Books: Old and Newsponsored by Northern Bee Books. Check out their newest books on bees and beekeepers and their collection of views and antiquary of beekeeping books at northernbebooks.co.uk. One of the newest books they've put out is a reprint by Kent Pellett of the life of Charles Dadant called Charles Dadant, That Bee Man from Champagne. Just so you know, Kent Pellett was the son of Frank Pellett and a longtime editor of the American Bee Journal published by Dadant and Sons.
The book chronicles the life of Charles Dadant from his start in Eastern France, his introduction to bees in his minister's garden, his father's interest in biology and science because he was the town's physician, to learning to make skeps and keeping them in town. He married in 1847 and had three children and for a time was in the railroad business. With war, business failed and on advice from a friend, he moved his family to the US to grow grapes and to make wine. Speaking no English made life a bit difficult, but he learned English by reading American newspapers. He soon began again with bees, discovered Italians, and was writing for the American Bee Journal by 1867.
He didn't introduce sweet clovers to Illinois but helped spread the plants much to the chagrin of local farmers. By 1871, he had met Langstroth, traveled back to France and Italy, was using bees that were all colors, and with his son Camille was manufacturing bee boxes producing beeswax foundation using at first a roller mill made by A.I. Root. Adulteration issues with liquid honey were always an issue in the industry, but by the late 1800 sales of equipment, honey in Queens was proving very profitable. By now, he was writing for both American and French bee journals, and with his son running a very successful beekeeping business along with making wine.
He finally met Langstroth in person in 1885. After 30 years since the first edition of The Hive and the Honeybee, Dadant agreed to revise that book. That task took him two years, but by 1888, Dadant took complete control of publishing this formidable tome and was paying Langstroth a monthly royalty.
If you aren't aware of where we came from as an industry, this is absolutely one of the books you should read. It is one of the reasons we are who we are, but it's not the only reason. This next book is another classic on the history of part of our beekeeping heritage.
It's the autobiography of A.I. Root and how he got his start, ran his business, and took and looked at life in general. A.I. got his start at Medina, Ohio in 1839 and died in 1923. This book is a result of a series of articles he wrote toward the end of his life that were to be published in his magazine Gleanings in Bee Culture after he had passed. From June 1923 to November 1928, there was one of these biographical and historical articles published each month. Here, I'll share some of the highlights because in my opinion, like the Dadant book just reviewed, what it contains is one of the reasons we are all here today, and one of the books you should be reading.
He was early on interested in electricity and after school became a one-man show detailing what you could do with this magic. That worked for a bit, but soon he had to learn a trade, and making jewelry seemed a good way to go. So good, in fact, that he soon opened a business on Medina's Town Square making and selling his designs. It was from a second-story window in this factory where a swarm flew by that he got his start with bees. He was manufacturing jewelry on the second floor of his factory and business, so he put his captured swarm on the third floor, which they quite rapidly abandoned.
Soon, however, he was a beekeeper and was writing for the journals, including ABJ, but soon after that started his own journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture in 1873. His stories of his magazine are not a lot different than today's, it seems. Customer complaints about late deliveries, humbugs and swindles advertising in his magazine, and constant debates on the best equipment, management styles, and more. Plus, A.I. always had a bit of wisdom, religion, and advice on good living each month. His business manufacturing beekeeping equipment took off once he built his new factory where veils, smokers, foundation mills, extractors, and all the bits and pieces of what a beekeeper needs were manufactured.
Because of his journal and his business, he had made many famous friends in the industry and out of the industry, and many of them came to visit him. Langstroth, Cook, Helen Keller, the Wright Brothers, C.C. Miller, and many more. Nor unlike Dadant's organization, his family grew and took over the business, although he remained active in many aspects of that business and his many hobbies and interests to the end. At the end, he asks a question all of us must answer. Whom are you working for, yourself, your children, your country, or he who is above us all? If you recall, in our last review, we took a look at a couple of ways to raise queens in a small apiary.
Because I just mentioned C.C. Miller, I thought I'd mention another new book published by Northern Bee Books on small-scale queen rearing using the Miller technique. C.C. Miller was originally a physician in Illinois, but an errant swarm caught his attention and soon he was a commercial beekeeper. Does that sound familiar? He began contributing to the journals, particularly ABJ, and authored several books on the subject over the years, including One Year Among the Bees, 40 Years Among the Bees, Fifty Years Among the Bees, and finally, A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions. Along the way, he developed a simple, easy and competent way to raise queens, and this is what this book is about.
The author, Lynfa Davies, is a master beekeeper from the UK and in 40 pages does an excellent job of explaining all aspects of this method, including the terms used, for instance, a cell raising colony, a donor colony, and a dummy board, and also how these are used and what equipment will be needed, and finally, how do you do it. Basically, you make your cell raising colony queenless for a week or so. Supply to that queenless colony a frame of fresh drawn comb from the donor colony that contains eggs and larva that has been cut such that there are several V-shaped bottoms, and let the colony raise several queen cells from that frame, which are then removed and put into mating nucs.
Once mated, these queens are transferred to colonies to be requeened. A minimum of equipment, handling, and places things can go wrong. This book has many excellent photos, many excellent photos showing all of this, and excellent descriptions of each stage of the game. The Miller method is a simple, easy, nearly foolproof way to raise a few queens for a small apiary. I don't think you can go wrong. All of these books are available from Northern Bee Books or on Amazon. If it's beekeeping history you want to know more of, the first two are perfect. If you need a few queens this spring, the last one will do you just fine. Well, that's it for this time.
Tune in again in a couple of weeks for the next edition of Bee Books: Old & New, sponsored by Northern Bee Books.
Jeff: Hey, Kim, thanks a lot for that. Really appreciate those book reviews. Let's get right to our interview with Hailey and Nathan of Combplex. First, a quick word from our friends at Strong Microbials.
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Jeff: Hey, everybody, and while you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, Strong Microbials' regular newsletter full of product facts and interesting beekeeping information. Everybody, welcome back again. Sitting across the virtual Zoom table right now are Nathan Oakes and Hailey Scofield of Combplex. Welcome back to Beekeeping Today Podcast.
Hailey Scofield: Thank you. Thanks so much for having us back.
Jeff: Great pleasure. We had you back on in November of 2018, 2019?
Nathan Oakes: 2019 I think.
Jeff: 2019 when you first announced your product, and we'll get into that, so it's really great to have you back.
Kim: Good to see you again, guys.
Hailey: Yes, good to see you too.
Nathan: [crosstalk] Good to talk to you.
Jeff: My, how time flies. Let's talk about Combplex, your journey to where you are now. You're actually sitting in a different location and we'll let you talk about that. Tell us about Combplex and who you are.
Hailey: Sure. Nate and I are previous researchers who started working in honeybee behavior health research at Cornell University. While we were students, we invented a way to treat varroa mites inside the colony. Basically, what we do is use AI and optics to control varroa mites long-term in the colony, automatically, year-round, and chemical-free.
Jeff: Sounds wonderful. Explain it a little bit further.
Hailey: Absolutely. I know, when we say that, people think we're crazy. Crazy can be good or crazy can be bad, but no matter what, it sounds a little crazy.
Jeff: What kind of drugs were you taking up at Cornell?
Hailey: I think a lot of lack of sunshine was a part of it, to be honest. [laughs] We started just doing remote monitoring. My background is in honeybee research, and Nate has a background in electrical engineering and data science. We started collaborating, but really quickly realized that varroa mites were much more of a bigger problem. If we were going to try and make anything that could help the colony state, it'd be great if we could do something about these horrible parasites. The way our product works is it's a little chamber inside a brood nest frame. It's just a drop-in normal brood nest frame, and there's a little opening at the corner.
It's really similar to when honeybees chew open the corners of their frames, and they actually preferentially will walk through those corners rather than going out and around the wood if they have the chance. They'll walk through the little corridor, and we can automatically see if a varroa mite is attached to the bee's abdomen. If yes, it fires a stationary laser automatically for about a millisecond. What that does is it's kind of a combination of a car wash and laser hair removal. Because of the anatomical difference between the bee and the mite, both from a wavelength perspective, the mite absorbs a lot more of this specific wavelength than the honeybee does.
Also, the honeybee's internal anatomy is a lot more complicated and way better able to deal with this additional energy being blasted at it. The varroa mite, unfortunately for it, really can't handle any of that additional heat or energy. The laser causes its exoskeleton to erupt. Varroa mites don't have any clotting mechanisms. That means that the varroa mite dies pretty much instantly right there, but the bee is unharmed, just like laser hair removal. As the nurse bees are cycling through the brood nest and going through this tunnel, just going from one side of the frame to the other, and on this natural rotation that they do, we can pick off varroa mites slowly, one at a time.
What that does for the varroa population in a colony is essentially flatten the curve of that varroa mite population build-up during the season. Once it's down, it stays down.
Kim: A quick question just so people can visualize this. You've got these lasers in this, I'm guessing, a tunnel through this frame.
Hailey: Yes, it's a tunnel that's exactly bee space. The perfect space for one bee to walk through.
Kim: I've got a bee going through this tunnel, that's perfect bee space. On this bee, there is at least one mite. You have how many lasers in this tunnel to make this happen?
Nathan: Just one.
Kim: Just one. That laser, does it move to accommodate a might on the back, on the side, underneath the be?
Nathan: No. The bees move through that corridor with such frequency, about a couple thousand in any given day, that we just wait for the mite to be right in front of the laser.
Kim: Okay, that makes sense, and makes it a lot easier I'll bet.
Hailey: Yes. We just kind of rely on the statistics to work out in our favor. As long as the colony is strong enough and they're using that frame as a brood nest frame, we get enough bees going through the corridor that it doesn't matter where the mite is.
Jeff: You said this is a regular frame, so a beekeeper doesn't have to buy a special frame, or do they?
Hailey: They do. It's a regular frame, and it has incorporated into the wall of the frame this special tunnel, some plastic housing for the electronics, so 3D printed plastic encasing structure with the electronic boards, the tube. Then, right now, it plugs into a solar panel on top of the colony. We're going to incorporate a battery in a subsequent revision.
Jeff: Very cool.
Kim: Yes. Very cool.
Jeff: How effective is it? You say if it detects a varroa mite, it zaps it, for lack of a better term, and then that mite drops off in the tube, or does it drop off later?
Hailey: It depends on if we hit the mite straight on. Because of the AI detection algorithm that Nate built, we can detect a varroa mite even if it's not straight in the middle of where the laser fires, but because the varroa mite is so sensitive to any kind of additional energy or heat as it manifests from the laser, even if we don't hit it straight on, the mite still dies. They just really can't handle any kind of dramatic fluctuation in their environment.
Nathan: The bees will demonstrate a grooming behavior and remove the mite.
Hailey: Yes. It's actually super cool. We hooked up a camera because the detection apparatus doesn't use a camera right now and we needed to hook up a camera to essentially proof some of the AI aspects of the detection algorithm. We got to observe super cool bee behaviors. They cleaned the inside of the tunnel using their tongues, and we caught that on camera. We'll post some of that online to our Instagram and TikTok accounts because it's super cool. When a dead varroa mite is in the tunnel, just like any kind of colony refuge anywhere else, they pick it up and take it outside.
Jeff: That'd be really cool. You said you'll post that to Instagram and TikTok. Do you have a YouTube channel?
Hailey: We do. Yes, we have those [crosstalk] on YouTube.
Jeff: You'll have all of those links in the show notes and also the guest profiles that will be attached to the show and to your prior show as well.
Jeff: Is it one frame per brood box or is there multiple frames per brood box to be effective?
Hailey: That's a good question. After we were lucky enough to win some of the award from Grow-NY, we received SBIR or a small business innovation and research grant from the National Science Foundation. That allowed us to do further engineering work from our prototype, which we had going into Grow-NY and also launched this big for bees anyways, field experiment to essentially ask that question.
We have a mathematical model that Nate wrote up that looks at the churn essentially of the honey bees in the brood nest and how many times they go around the frame and kind of looking at the statistics of how often we're likely to catch a varroa mite and if that will impact their reproductive rate enough for us to make a difference, but we still need to test it in the colonies on a large enough scale. I think anybody who's had more than one colony understands that the colonies can be incredibly different, right? Personalities. We need to test that on a fairly large scale. We've got a hundred frames. We're really excited. These are frames we did not hand-build.
These were built by an actual factory with the electronics coming from us from the Midwest and the plastics coming to us from outside of Austin and engineers that we worked with in upstate New York, kind of all collaborated to make these possible. Then, they'll be installed in about 70 colonies split between Florida and Texas to answer that question. The goal for the product that goes to market is one frame, but we might need to have, coming back to Kim's point, multiple holes in the frame. If we could have up to four lasers in the corners of the frame, that would allow for four times as many workers to go through, or just one or two or three.
The goal is one frame per colony because the brood nest is so centrally located. We know that's where the varroa mites reproduce. That's where the nurse bees are. That's where the varroa mite feed in the phoretic stage . We want one frame right there.
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Kim: The way that technology has been going and the people that we've been talking to that are beginning to harness some of these things, where's the power for the laser come from?
Nathan: We plug right into a solar panel, and it's such a brief pulse that it actually takes more energy to run the computer in the frame than it does the laser. It's really efficient.
Kim: Okay. Then, running out of power probably is not going to be a concern. What I'm thinking of is does this thing talk to my cellphone or my computer so that I can monitor if it's still working?
Jeff: Or number of strikes, number of hits.
Kim: Yes. Well, that too. Does it do a count?
Hailey: Yes. It does. [chuckles]
Nathan: We're building out a dashboard so that people can know a little bit more about what's going on inside their colonies without opening them up. We're hoping that we can be useful enough that people will want to use it.
Kim: Exactly. That just leads me into the next question, which is, if I'm looking at numbers of zaps, am I able to interpret that data and do how heavily infested is my colony?
Hailey: Yes. That's something that we're really excited to actually work with other beekeepers on this spring and summer. We have these hundred frames that after this field test, we have an additional batch coming to us and we're going to do a beta test with beekeepers from across the country. Part of that will be kind of this group experiment where we'll send out sample collection kits so that the beekeepers can roll their colonies because we need to get that correlational data in between the numbers that we get from the laser. Also, the numbers that we get from a beekeeper's mite roll. Then, we can put those two numbers together, Nate can do some amazing statistics math magic, and it'll all make perfect sense.
Then, in the second release of the app and when we have the real product, I mean, it's all a real product, but the non-beta product in the market, then that should be a pretty clear relationship in between mites seen on an individual basis across time which is fundamentally different from a snapshot of a lot of bees at one point in time. Nate can speak to this a lot better, but sometimes relating those two types of data together can be kind of complicated.
Nathan: Yes. It's a lot of fun math under the hood, but talking to a lot of beekeepers, we've found that they're not really concerned about exactly what the temperature is, for instance, they want to know how can this help me make decisions about the colony. We're more interested in presenting useful information as opposed to just data.
Hailey: There's always a situation, I think, in any kind of beekeeping, or maybe this is just normal for bees in general, where what you expect to happen is kind of the opposite of what actually happens. Sometimes maybe there's a colony nearby that collapses and you have a huge influx of varroa mites, that can be a case that's certainly caught me by surprise in my own beekeeping and that I need to go in off my normal treatment schedule and really take a look at what's going on with the varroa mite population.
Making sure that beekeepers have that additional information and aren't just relying on one method I think is really important and something that we're really committed to building into the information.
Jeff: What about the cleanliness of the optics, whether it be the AI optic that senses that there is a varroa and the lens over the laser, do they get crudded up by dirty bee feet? [chuckles]
Hailey: Kind of, we did have a problem [crosstalk]- -
Nathan: We had to iterate over that, that gave us problems at first.
Hailey: I think we've been through five complete hardware iterations since we talked to you guys last time. Five completely different versions of the laser, the housing, the frame, everything. One of them everything worked really well, except there was this tiny little almost pinhole where the light from the detection system and the laser would go through and bounce off the bee back through this little aperture. Some colonies, it would take them a month or two, and they propolize that little pinhole, we're like, "Okay, a month or two, maybe we can work with that." Other colonies, they're like 12 hours propolized, they're like, "No, shut it down." So [crosstalk]- - Yes, go ahead.
Nathan: We've learned that if we just include a little glass corridor for them, not only do they not crud it up, they actually keep it clean. They'll bring water in and they'll swab it around inside. They'll make a circle with their tongue and you use that like a squeegee. They keep it very clean so that works for us pretty well.
Hailey: Then, worst-case scenario, it's really easy to just take a Q-tip and a little bit of rubbing alcohol and pass it through the frame.
Nathan: Yes, but so far, we haven't had to do that.
Kim: I like that bee cleaning thing. It sounds like they figured this out and maybe it's a good thing to keep it clean, as opposed to-- [chuckles]
Nathan: Yes, they've adopted it into their colony.
Hailey: Yes, it took us a really long time to build things that were in line with the honeybees' own architectural rules. Even though the rules are written down and it's pretty clear what you need to do, sometimes when you're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, you have to trick them a little bit.
Nathan: Yes, a lot of people are really wowed by the laser aspect of things but really, I think the real innovation comes from designing for bees and getting them to-- They don't really just accept anything inside the colony, so that's been the tough part.
Jeff: I can definitely see that. The other question I had regarding the laser was, I guess, I'm sure it aims or it timed so it hits the varroa, what it sensed as the varroa, but is there any damage to the eye of the bee in the optics?
Hailey: Good question. Yes, we haven't done any tests to see if those bees have any damage, but they're not facing the right way.
Nathan: Right, there's no reason to suspect that there would be, so actually even humans aren't really at risk of damage to their eyes from lasers unless there's a direct hit. If it's scattering off of something, that reduces the intensity enough that you often don't need to be concerned. We're not shooting at their eyes.
Hailey: Yes, only one bee can fit in that particular space at one time, so there's not any reason, but that was something that we considered very early on. We ran the numbers, basically, and it would be worth it for the colony to have bees that had reduced eyesight if the varroa mites that they carried were removed. Because most of the honeybee's lifespan is spent in the dark colony, she's really only using eyesight when she leaves the colony to be in foraging. Most of her usefulness to the colony really takes place earlier in her lifespan, and there's nothing about damage to eyesight that could impact that. It made sense to us that even if that was a potential side effect, we would still choose that over varroa mites.
Jeff: The distance between the laser optic and the bee body itself must be less than a millimeter, it's pretty [crosstalk]- -
Nathan: Between the bee and the aperture that the laser fires from is a couple of millimeters it's set back maybe a centimeter.
Jeff: We're kind of sad because we actually designed it so that it's almost impossible for a human eye to get a glimpse of the laser as it's working. That's retrospectively really unfortunate because it means it's really difficult for us to get good videos of what happens to the varroa mite the moment it's hit with the laser in the device.
Nathan: Yes. We're still trying to figure out how to do that. If any listeners have any great ideas about that, we're all ears.
Hailey: Weird angle macro photography, please email us.
Nathan: Yes, we want to show the world.
Kim: A quick question on basic colony biology is that this frame is in a location during the busy part of the season and it's one frame and I'm looking at your webpage. I like your web page, by the way. Looking at your webpage, you had that tunnel in the frame down in the lower corner. I'm guessing that you can put that tunnel anywhere on that frame that you want, is that correct?
Kim: Where I'm going with this is, what happens is that the colony population expands, of course, you're going to take up all of that space. You're going to have a lot of bees around that tunnel but as a colony population decreases with fall, winter, dry season, whatever would cause it to do that, would it get to the point where the population of bees would probably not get close to that corner or enough bees get close enough to that corner?
Hailey: Yes, that's a good question. When we chose to put that tunnel in the corner, we were really doing our best to mimic the bees' own architecture. That really comes from you look at a frame that's on wire or doesn't have any kind of structural support, the bees don't typically have holes in the middle of the column. If they do, that's usually not a great sign for their genetics. You often find the holes that they like to use as highways essentially from frame to frame in the corners of the frame. Even as the colony's contracting in the winter unless they're really clustered up, you're still seeing bees. Nurse bees go to those corners as they go from side to side, they're not typically going up over the top.
They do go up over the top and over the wood but when you are recording them for a long period of time, they're really using those tunnels, they prefer to be on the wax. By putting our tunnel in that same positioning, we're utilizing not so much where the massive bees are but where the travel occurs, if that makes sense.
Kim: It makes sense, yes. To get from here to there, I need a communication hole, or I have to go up over a top bar or under a bottom bar. If there's a hole there, that's my first choice usually.
Hailey: Yes, exactly. We had so many frames. When I was at Cornell, we just had frames and frames and frames, some of which were ancient and they have all kinds of different backing and support. It was really cool to see over time where the bees chose to make those little passages when they had the chance pre-plastic foundation. We based it on that.
Kim: I noticed you did some of your work with Tom Seeley. I would guess the two of you spent a lot of time looking at an observation hive.
Hailey: We did indeed, yes. [chuckles] Yes, I still have an observation hive in my house. I always have one. It's just so useful. I think I'm a better bee observer than I am an actual beekeeper. Especially since, for this project, so much of the beekeeping work is kind of sad, honestly. It's having a really isolated apiary, number one, and then keeping the parasite levels really high in the colonies as long as possible so that we can get really good dramatic results. Especially in the end of the year, there's always a couple of weeks where I'm super sad, and I'm combining colonies like crazy and having to euthanize some of them potentially when the experiment is over because they're not going to make it. It's sad.
It's a very hard week making the test, and I come into the office, and I'm like, "I don't like this. This is not what I thought my job would be." Having a healthy observation hive that I can sit at my desk and pull the insulation off and see the waggle dances on a sunny day, that makes it better for me, so I do that a lot and I love my observation hive.
Kim: Are you finding that in your research or working with commercial beekeepers that the data that you're monitoring, and excuse me if we've already said this a different way, you're able to monitor the number of times that laser fires, correct?
Nathan: Yes, we count the number of times the laser fires, we count how many times we see a mite, we count how many times we see a bee so we can also give you mite load information. There's other companies in the space that are doing similar stuff with remote monitoring. There's a lot we can know about the health of a colony from things like its temperature, its humidity, how much the bees are buzzing.
Kim: I guess where I'm going with this then is that if I'm running 30 or 40 colonies in a bee yard, which isn't uncommon, how many of these frames would you want in that 30 or 40 colonies to be able to interpret the data to the point where I can say what this bee yard is going through? Have you looked at that?
Hailey: Yes. Well, I think Nate and I might have different answers to that, but in all of the models that we built, the behavior models, and the math models for the colony function with and without the laser apparatus, we built it one frame per colony because you need to have continual suppression. The way that our product works, you need continual population suppression just because of the way that the varroa mites reproduce. You need something there to keep the downward pressure on that population or else it's going to come back up. We also designed the frame to have the least amount of work possible for the beekeeper.
The whole idea is you put it in, you do not take it out, and you don't have to do anything to it, the opposite of any kind of treatment method you would do for varroa mites today. Those were two big fundamental ideas going in. Then the other thing I think is especially optimizing for varroa numbers in the total opposite way of I think just about every beekeeper unless they study varroa, I find that even my high parasite apiaries have incredible variation. My colonies are three meters apart at the most, usually closer to one meter, one yard apart, and I can have colonies that have 50 mites per 300 bees next to a colony from the same genetic stock that has five mites per 300 bees.
It'll be like that for months, and I can't explain why. That's why when we do little experiments with 5 frames or 10 frames, we are always like, "Well, this is great. This is positive," but you have to shrug because of the inherent variation in that system and the variation between colonies. It's so easy to want to just have one colony that you check in a yard and it's so much work to go into every colony and check on a regular basis, but I think the payoffs that you can see from actually doing that and getting past that inherent variation are just really rewarding.
I always try and encourage people, "When you can, look at all your colonies because you're going to get a better sense of who actually is doing better and you're going to have a better sense of what's really going on in the yard." I don't think it's really possible to know just from the one colony on a corner.
Jeff: For sure. You realize that come, I don't know, February, March.
Hailey: Totally, yes. The three that are alive are the ones that you never checked and you're like, "What's up with those guys?" [chuckles] Totally.
Jeff: This sounds really, really, really cool. When can I go out to say Betterbee or my corner bee store and order a Combplex frame?
Hailey: We are actually launching pre-sales, so where you can actually buy a frame, and we will ship them as soon as they're ready. Anyone who works in hardware or electronics in the last 20 years knows that COVID has completely wrecked the global supply system. Sometimes we log online to look at sourcing the laser diode or something and it's like, "Okay, we've got 2000 and we'll ship them to you tomorrow," and then six hours later, they're like, "It's going to be 52 weeks. Sorry about that."
That makes everything difficult on our end in terms of delivering them, but the pre-sales will open March 10th and we will have the I think 100 frames that we have coming to us in a couple of weeks. Those will also be ready to sell, and those will ship this spring because we already have them in hand.
Jeff: That's just in a few days or a few weeks from now... [crosstalk].
Hailey: Yes. Super close, this week, next week, [crosstalk] something like that.
Jeff: Excellent. Do you have a pricing set for this?
Hailey: We'd love to announce the pricing, but we're finalizing that in the next couple of days. There's a lot that goes into it and we'll for sure announce it on our site, in the newsletter, on social media. Definitely follow us for more information and the information on the launch of that presales, it'll all be included.
Jeff: All right. Fair enough.
Kim: Well, that's good. I just signed up for your newsletter today. I saw that you had one, so I'll be looking for that.
Hailey: We're doing a much better job. A couple of years ago it was focus on engineering for bees and then focus on optics and then optics for bees and then manufacturing. Now, we're finally graduating to marketing. For the first time where I got to call my younger cousin and ask, "What is Tiktok? Okay, good to know. Moving on, Instagram." Nate's got Twitter, we're both answering our emails for the first time in years. We're really excited now that we are moved past a lot of the R&D stage to really engage with people and make sure that as we're finalizing the design and manufacturing for actual beekeepers, that it's something that people really want to contact us.
Nathan: For everybody listening, please reach out to us. We'd love to hear from you.
Kim: Jeff's question was apropos though, in that eventually your goal is to be the manufacturer and let other people do the sales and marketing?
Hailey: I won't speak for Nate, but I think we are always getting out of bed and then going to an office to meet up because of the potential that the information from this device can give us about bees, about beekeeping, about agriculture, and it's really still from a scientific problem that we get excited about this, and almost to the extent that the bee laser is a Trojan horse in a way because we can get so much more information, but what's the one way that you can get a device in as many bee colonies as possible? Kill varroa mites. That was like, "All right, well, we'll kill varroa mites, and then we'll get a bunch of bee data, and then we can do some cool science."
That's still at least for me where we're going [crosstalk].
Nathan: To answer your question, yes, we're not focused primarily on distribution ourselves. There's plenty of really great companies out there, Betterbee, for instance, you mentioned, that have already established really good connections with beekeepers, and so we're just going to go with what works.
Hailey: We're very excited to work with as many people as possible on this project. We learned a little bit of the manufacturing and hardware engineering and all of the things that we needed to know to invent this and put this together, but we're not experts, and the moment that we can hire experts, we will, and we'll just become bee and data nerds in an office that we can jump in on. [chuckles] That's the dream.
Nathan: I would love that, yes.
Kim: Well, what this is is a heads up to all of you out there who sell bee supplies to beekeepers and publish beekeeping magazines and all of that, is pay attention to what's going on here because pretty soon you need to be first in line, I think.
Nathan: It's going to be really exciting. It's going to be big.
Jeff: I'm partial to Betterbee actually, [crosstalk]- -
Nathan: We're friends with them.
Jeff: They're a good sponsor. We love them. I think they'll be top of that list.
Jeff: Hailey, Nathan, is there anything that we haven't asked that you've been jumping at the bit to tell us about the varroa zap? What is the product name actually? Do you have an actual product name for it?
Hailey: Well, we've been calling it the bee laser and we actually are changing our domain to beelasers.com because it's a little bit more clear. Combplex predated the bee laser invention. We're I guess too lazy, really, is the word to rename in the company, but we've got the new domain.
Jeff: No, say you're too busy. Too busy is the [crosstalk]- -
Hailey: Yes. That's right. We're just busy. That's what it is. Beelasers.com and we're just calling it the bee laser.
Nathan: Nothing fancy. It's exactly what it is. It's a bee laser.
Jeff: [laughs] I love it. It tells the story in two words.
Hailey: The one other thing I guess I would add is just one more ask for your listeners and this one's specific, but we're always looking for folks that happen to have 20 or more colonies that they suspect or know have a high number of mites, particularly in Texas or Florida, or anywhere in between that corridor in the Southeast. We're always looking for places that we can go and do a quick in-and-out experiment to gather more information on effectiveness and number of frames needed per colony and really just refine our internal software and detection systems.
Honestly, that would make my year because it'll give my bees a break and I won't have to reintroduce more varroa mites and optimize for varroa mite breeding and get more drone frames in there. I would really love to give myself at least an emotional break some fall all in the future. If anyone wants us to show up in a trailer with some fresh frames, send us an email, or reach out to us on social media.
Jeff: There you go. I bet they're sitting in the middle of bee country in Austin area and close to Florida, you'll get a lot of offers, a lot of opportunity to test out the bee laser. I do have one last question, and just doesn't require too detailed, but how does it work with the hive beetle? Does it do anything to the hive beetle?
Jeff: That's product two. [chuckles]
Nathan: Not yet, but I don't see why we couldn't have the beetles targeted as well.
Hailey: Nate bugs me about the hive beetles just about every week, I think.
Nathan: [crosstalk] Varroa is just the beginning, there's nothing stopping us from also just taking care of the rest of the pests. Everyone asks us about murder hornets too, so yeh, we can take care of them too.
Jeff: I was going to ask you about pesky neighbors but that's--
Hailey: Lasers, the answer for everything.
Jeff: Kim, is there anything else? Sorry before I [crosstalk]- -
Kim: No, I think they've explained it well, and when people go take a look at the actual unit in their web page, and check into some of the information available there, if they have any questions that haven't been answered, that web page will probably take care of it, I think. When you said your bee laser web page is coming online soon, sooner, soonest?
Hailey: Yes, it'll be online for sure by the time this podcast airs. Sometimes the internet has back-end black boxes that you just have to wait for somebody somewhere to push a button sometime to make the change. [crosstalk].
Kim: Between the information on the webpage and the newsletter, Jeff, I think somebody that checks it out not only will find out anything they need to know but will be up to date as soon as it comes out.
Jeff: Yes. Well, very good. Hailey and Nathan, we really appreciate you being on the podcast again. Look forward to hearing more about the bee laser as it comes out and it makes its way and look forward to having you back [music] and hearing more about the exciting projects you guys are dreaming up and working on in a couple of months.
Nathan: Thanks, yeh... [crosstalk].
Hailey: Thanks for having us.
Nathan: It was nice talking to you.
Jeff: Thanks for being here.
Jeff: Talking with Hailey and Nate is enough nerdy and enough bee that I really enjoy it. The tech and the bees, put it all together, that's fun.
Kim: It is, and not only is it fun, I like that word because that's what it was, but it was also a whole different way of looking at mites and bees. If I don't have to put poison in a beehive, if I can put a laser in a beehive instead of poison in a beehive, I am nine steps ahead of the game because I don't like that. Not only that but the data that they can collect in terms of all of the things that are going on in the colony. I'll just generalize here but the people we've talked to in the last year or two that are mechanizing the inside of a beehive to me is really exciting. Then, you get to the other hand, and we mentioned Tom Seeley.
Tom Seeley is going in a totally opposite direction back to a hollow tree and all-natural homes and things. I'm torn here, but if we're going to go mechanized, I like what they're doing.
Jeff: If you're going to stay in a managed type, which in many states you have to have removable frames, that's technically the law for inspection purposes, then you're going to have to deal with a standard Langstroth type frame. If you're going to do that, then you're going to have to deal with varroa and might as well do whatever you can to get rid of the varroa and get rid of the problem, or down the road, a small hive beetle or anything else that comes along. I think that's a good thing. Actually, for me, and talking with them, it just gives me hope for battling the varroa that's been with us forever.
Kim: Yes, and all the other tools we have are moderately effective, genetics is moderately effective. Mechanics of what these people are doing and a lot of other people are doing, let's hope it's better. [chuckles]
Jeff: [chuckles] There you go, magic word, hope. All right, well, that about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars in Apple Podcast, wherever you download and stream the show. Your vote helps other beekeepers find us even quicker. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like. You can get there directly from the website by clicking on reviews along the top of any webpage. As always, we thank Bee Culture the magazine for American beekeeping for their continued support of Beekeeping Today Podcast.
We want to thank our regular episode sponsor Global Patties. Check them out www.globalpatties.com. We also want to thank Strong Microbials for their support of the podcast. Check out their full probiotic line at www.strongmicrobials.com. Thanks to Betterbee for being our supporter. Check out all the great beekeeping supplies as you start your spring at www.betterbee.com. Finally and most importantly, we want to thank you the Beekeeping Today Podcast listener for joining us on this show. Feel free to send us questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear from you. Anything else, Kim?
Kim: Oh, I think that about wraps it up. It was a fun show to do. The only thing I can think of is if you like this show and you gained as much from it as I did, share it with a friend or friends.
Jeff: That's great advice. Thanks a lot, Kim. Thank you, everybody, for joining us.
[00:55:54] [END OF AUDIO]
Nathan's early childhood in the Philippines instilled in him an appreciation for the wonderful complexity of nature. After studying electrical engineering as well as natural sciences at Penn State, he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry before realizing biology is his true passion. He subsequently moved to Seattle to join a cloud-computing big-data genomics startup. After that business reached the end of its runway, he worked as an engineer for various tech companies in California and New York.
Nathan and Hailey met at Cornell University taking a class on using game theory to model animal behavioral evolution. They have been collaborators since. Nathan left academia as a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, where he studied Computational Biology with Professor Philipp Messer.
Hailey hails from Nome, Alaska, where she wandered the tundra while exploring arctic fox dens, chasing bumblebees, hunting moose and picking berries with her family. Hailey moved south for school and worked on farms and ranches during summers. She became fascinated by the intersection of ecology, agriculture, and sustainability. Along the way, she fell in love with the curious behavioral repertoire of insect pollinators.
Hailey has been working in honey bee behavior research since 2010, and landed at Cornell University in 2015 as a Ph.D. student in Neurobiology and Behavior with Professor Tom Seeley. She transitioned to do more applied honey bee health research with Professor Scott McArt in 2019, and left to focus on making bee lasers at Combplex full time in 2020.
Hailey now lives in Austin Texas.