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Feb. 27, 2023

HiveTracks: Bees as Biosensors with James Wilkes and Max Rünzel (S5, E37)

HiveTracks: Bees as Biosensors with James Wilkes and Max Rünzel (S5, E37)

Today we meet up again with James Wilkes, founder, and Max Rünzel, CEO, of Hive Tracks. The people at HiveTracks have raised the bar when it come to gathering data about your bees, your bee yards, the environment in which they live. The data also...

Today we meet up again with James Wilkes, founder, and Max Rünzel, CEO, of Hive Tracks.

The people at HiveTracks have raised the bar when it come to gathering data about your bees, your bee yards, the environment in which they live. The data also provides a look at what role climate change may or may not play in how well they are doing now and in the future.

The data entered by beekeepers using the HiveTracks app, is analyzed and reported back to the beekeeper helping him or her make knowledge-based decisions that help them throughout the season.

Listen today as James and Max talk about the new directions they are taking HiveTracks to further the use of bees as biosensors – first data collectors of the environments they visit on their journeys. This is fascinating and exciting journey you will definitely want to learn about.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Thank you for listening!

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

Honey Bee Obscura


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Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; A Fresh New Start by Pete Morse; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott

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S5, E37 – HiveTracks: Bees as Biosensors with James Wilkes and Max Rünzel


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 honeybees. 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

Jeff: Thank you, Sherry, and thanks to Bee Culture for continuing their presenting sponsorship to this podcast. Bee Culture has been the magazine for American Beekeeping since 1873. A quick thanks to all of our sponsors whose support enables us to bring you this podcast each week without resorting to a fee-based subscription. We don't want that and we know you don't either. Make sure to check out all of our other content on our website. There, you can read up on all of our guests. Read our blog on various aspects and the observations about beekeeping.

Search for, download, and listen to over 200 past episodes. Read episode transcripts, leave comments and feedback on each show, and check on podcast specials from our sponsors. You can find it all at Kim, you guys have been sitting there in Ohio. The rest of us are freezing in this cold winter snap. You guys have enjoyed some warm weather. How is it today?

Kim: Today it got to 70.

Jeff: Wow.

Kim: Tomorrow it's going to be 30. You enjoy it when you can. Actually, jumping up and down like that is actually worse for me than just a straight 40 degrees. I'd be real happy with that, and I think that's what we're going to get after this.

Jeff: Come out to Washington State. It's a solid 40 degrees.

Kim: I may do that. Okay.

Jeff: This coming weekend you and Jim will be at the Tri-County meeting in Wooster, Ohio, isn't that correct?

Kim: Yes, Jim Tew and I'll be there. If you're going to be there, stop in, and say hi. We'd like to talk to you and maybe get some id-- You got some ideas of people we should be talking to on this broadcast or things that Jimmy and I should be talking about on that broadcast.

Jeff: Yes. If anybody is going to be in the Wooster, Ohio area or have the opportunity to go to the Tri-County meeting the first weekend in March, make sure you stop in and say hi to Kim and Jim and see what they're up to. Sign some books. Say hi.

Kim: There you go.


Jeff: The other thing neat about the Tri-County, there'll be a lot of vendors there, and you'll be able to see some of the latest and greatest technology. I don't think our next guest will be there, but speaking of technology, Hive Tracks is one of the early adopters of technology and creating management tools for beekeepers. In our upcoming show here today, we have James Wilkes, and the new CEO, Max. I can't remember his last name.

Kim: I'm waiting to hear that when Hive Tracks starts using AI to make their programs work because they're doing a good job, they're ahead of the curve I think.

Jeff: You're right. I think if anybody uses AI, the first people to do it will be Hive Tracks.

Kim: Yes

Jeff: All right, let's get right into it. First, a quick word from our friends at HiveAlive and Strong Microbials.

HiveAlive: Spring brings wild and unpredictable weather to limit the chance of colony starvation before your first honey flow. It is vital to add HiveAlive fondant now. In a cold snap, bees can starve because they cannot access their stores. When you place fondant right over the cluster, food is accessible for your bees when they need it. Now is the perfect time to stock up from a wide selection of high-quality honeybee feed supplements, you can choose from HiveAlive's Liquid Blend to our HiveAlive 15% real pollen fondant patties. Our unique liquid blend has seaweed extracts, time, and lemongrass, and is scientifically proven to maintain low disease levels. You'll have more bees with improved bee gut health and more honey this season. To learn more about each of our quality products, visit the website Be sure to use the code BTP at the checkout to receive your special discount.

StrongMicrobials: Hey, beekeepers. Many times during the year, honeybees encounter scarcity of floral sources. As good beekeepers, we feed our bees artificial diets of protein and carbohydrates to keep them going during those stressful times. What is missing though are key components, the good microbes necessary for a bee to digest the food and convert it into metabolic energy. Only SuperDFM-HoneyBee by Strong Microbials can provide the necessary microbes to optimally convert the artificial diet into energy necessary for improving longevity, reproduction, immunity, and much more. SuperDFM-HoneyBee is an all-natural probiotic supplement for your honeybees. Find it at or at fine bee supply stores everywhere.

Jeff: While you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, the regular newsletter full of interesting beekeeping facts and product updates. Hey everybody, welcome back to the show. Sitting across a virtual Zoom table right now is a good friend of the show, James Wilkes of Hive Tracks, and Max Rünzel also of Hive Tracks. Welcome, guys, to the show.

James Wilkes: Thanks so much. It's great to be here again and look forward to a fun conversation as usual.

Max Rünzel: Yes, thanks for the warm welcome. Really happy to be here.

Jeff: Glad to have you here, Max. James, it's not springtime unless we see you on the show.

James: I wouldn't say it's springtime, but springtime is approaching. Like all beekeepers this time of year, we're getting a little antsy and ready to take off.

Kim: It's 18 here today, Jeff, up in northern Ohio.

James: We're going cold tonight. We're getting that from your direction, Kim.

Kim: I'm happy to share.


James: No, thank you.

Jeff: James, we asked you to come back to this show. Not only because it's now tradition after four or five years, but Hive Track continues to evolve, and change, and grow, and get better. Why don't you tell our new listeners who is Hive Tracks and then we can go into what's new?

James: Sure. Hive Tracks is a beekeeping software created by beekeepers for beekeepers. We've been at it since 2010 and continue to reimagine our software and help beekeepers do a better job of keeping their bees healthy. We've really changed a lot in the last two years, and when we talked some last year about some of the changes. We just continue to iterate on that and using everything we've learned over the past dozen years or so to keep up with the technology, as well as keep up with the beekeepers and where we think they are in terms of their adoption of technology and things like that.

We've talked about that multiple times in the past and just the bee technology space itself continues to, I guess, accelerate you would say. Just all the interesting new things that are out there, we're keeping up with. I've also got, as you mentioned, Max Rünzel here with us today. I don't think he's been on the podcast before, but he's not new to Hive Tracks. I've been working with Max since 2020, the spring, and then officially, about a year after that, he came on with us full-time and is now CEO of Hive Tracks. I'll let Max say a little bit about himself as well if that's okay.

Max: Yes, no, thanks a lot, James. As James was saying, my name is Max Rünzel. I have a background in rural development and food and resource economics actually. As you may have picked up already, I was born and raised in Europe, so I'm half Swedish, half German. Right out of going the ag-econ line, I moved to Rome, Italy to work for the UN, so, for the food and agriculture organization. I was in the research and extension unit where we mostly worked in beekeeping, so, what technologies and practices can small-holder beekeepers around the world adopt?

Very quickly, we got to this point where we were confined by a lack of technology, a lack of vision, which was roundabout exactly when James came along and gave a presentation, gave a talk at a round table. We were talking about how bee data can help with the sustainable development goals. We clicked and started working together. It was one of the many topics of how can we catalyze, how can we get the right advice that beekeepers need at the right time into their hands through technology in a smart way. That got us excited in the first place.

It took us about a year or so to figure out how to work together. Then the big March 2020 happened that we all remember. All of a sudden, it was me in my childhood room in Germany instead of being in Boone, North Carolina where I'm based now since I got my visa last year. Proud resident over here and finally in the same timezone, and very, very happy to be here and on this journey with James together and the rest of the Hive Tracks team.

Jeff: Welcome to the show, and welcome to Boone, North Carolina.

Max: Thanks.

Kim: It's nice to meet you, Max.

Max: No, likewise, it's a big pleasure. I've been listening to many episodes. James has always been telling me about this. He's like, "Max, you're going to meet some beacons of the beekeeping space today." I was quite excited to meet the two of you.

Jeff: You're meeting with them after the podcast?

Kim: Yes.


Max: That was this morning. We had coffee.

Jeff: Yes, right.


Kim: We're here today, and Jeff brought it up before, what your organization has been doing up until now. Now, you and Max are, I'm not going to say going in a different direction but going in-- What's the word I want here? Because you're still looking at gathering data and interpreting that data so that it can be used by beekeepers. What are you guys up to?

James: Yes, let me just reiterate that we've not lost any of the original vision that I had, which I'm super happy that we're able to continue and be grounded in that and be advocates for the beekeepers and providing them tools and things that they can use to make their beekeeping better, but we've put that into a bigger context, I would say, and a bigger vision that goes way beyond the beekeeper, but it recognizes the value. Actually, what we're trying to do is create an environment where the beekeepers' actions is recognized for the value that it creates in terms of pollination services or the more general term, ecosystem services, that people are talking about now.

The impact that has on the environment, and recognizing that, articulating that, and so continue to build tools. We've rebuilt our whole technology stack once again. We can talk more about that and would love to tell you some about the interesting new twists we have there that we think are going to have a big impact this coming season. I'll let Max take it from there and talk just a little bit more about the umbrella vision that we have.

Max: The key piece really is to understand what beekeepers do out there every day, on a weekly, on a two-week basis. How can we take what is happening as, we almost call it like a human biodiversity interaction. It's hundreds of thousands of people who go out every week and observe, and keep track and see how their bees are doing, interact with their bees, interact with the environment. As that happens, this is a humongous impact on biodiversity. It's like it's the backbone of what keep our ecosystems healthy. The question there then becomes, why can't we account for that?

Why can't we recognize that effort by beekeepers around the world in the same manner that it's being recognized in the agricultural space? Because there's value to what beekeepers do in these areas, and what it means for our biodiversity and our ecosystems as they work. A lot of the thinking that we're doing is how can we equip beekeepers with the tools and the proof of the effect of what they do as a positive impact on the environment around them. That is in different direction. One is sort of an authentication of where these services are being delivered and where you make an impact on the environment.

That can either help with showing where your honey comes from, it can showing with what your impact on the environment was. Why shouldn't you be compensated as a beekeeper for what you're doing by protecting the biodiversity in a decentralized manner somewhere in the world? There's so much that you're doing on a basis. That's really what we're concerned about is to see, can we show the work of beekeepers beyond the honey production in a way that nobody has done before, so, to give beekeepers the recognition that they deserve both in terms of being able to see what they did, but also to be able to incentivize it financially at some point that we have thousands of beekeepers who do what needs to get done to keep our ecosystems healthy.

Kim: It sounds like you're trying to shoot at a moving target because the biodiversity that you are measuring today, next season may not be there. The 500-pound gorilla here is climate change. What you'll be able to measure next year is the change that happened between this year's measurements and what you got. Is that part of your program looking at how the world is moving faster than we want it to?

James: Absolutely. It's, part of this is, one, creating a data framework if you will. We know that there's connections between beekeepers and really, the honeybees' activities themselves, and the environment in which they're in. They're pollinating, which creates life, which multiplies the flora in the area and the health of the bees, the pollen that they're collecting, the honey that they're producing are all measures of what's going on in that ecosystem around them. Having that data then creates the opportunity to do what you're talking about.

What are the deltas from one season to the next? If we don't even have a baseline data, then how are we going to measure any changes? First order is getting that baseline data that really simply creates a digital version of what's happening for the beekeeper in their bee yard. In the tech space, it's like this digital twin of what's happening in the bee yard, we are able to capture enough of that to get a sense of what's going on with the bees, the beekeepers, their health. Then you can layer over top of that or join with that third-party data sources, whether it's the weather or land use in the area, which would include agricultural use, that sort of thing. It's really a mash-up of the bee data and then these other sources, and to see what that tells us. Again, we've not had an opportunity to look at that kind of data before. That's the idea.

Max: I think, Kim, your question is so spot on. It's like, how do you measure a moving target? How do you keep track of that? To us, the solution to that is just a decentralized version of allowing a crowdsourcing of the type of data. The new key piece in our technology will be to learn from your environment, to learn from people who are around you, to be able to learn from what other people are doing in your area, to be able to learn from what other blooms people are recognizing in your area because we know that certain hard and fast rules that we may have had in old beekeeping almanacs or old rules that we knew, soon as we go over this temperature, then we know that certain things will happen. That becomes more and more erratic.

The events that happen, can be more and more adverse, and happen at points where we can't really see what it is. What we need to be able to rely on is just when a lot of people start to observe, say what blooms, for example, and will be able in the app to say, "Yes, this was confirmed by so many people in my area," so I know that the maple, for example, here now on the East Coast is slowly moving up the East Coast and gives me an indicator for the starting of the season. The same also goes for beekeeping practices in and of itself.

Since many of these rules change and the temperature changes, so, the first inspection of the year may change from one season to the next.

I want to know when the beekeepers in my area performed the very first inspection. This type of almost community intelligence is a key piece which we believe will be essential already but moving forward even more so because we can't rely anymore on this old wisdom so to say because the changing climate is just putting new threats or new challenges into our lives as beekeepers.

Jeff: What data are you collecting? Is it manually entered, or is it automatically captured?

Max: There is a mix between the two. There is a few that are automatically captured like the weather data, for example. That is something where the location collects the weather information that is being pulled in. As for the data that we collect manually, we work very closely around the healthy colony checklists. The key component of our app is the so-called inspection process. These are four big questions around food stores, population size, brood stages, and stressors that you may find. The interesting aspect, how we approached it again is to think we want the technology to disappear.

Nobody likes to enter forms of data. Nobody likes to enter data and not get anything back from it. There have to be two rules to doing this. One, if I put in data, I want something back. Recommend something, give me some information, make it work for me. Two is, I don't want it to be painful. When we reinvented this, the common response that you can take with the app in this inspection, we said, "What if I want to enter the data quickly?" We created a pathway where just with a thumbs up, thumbs down, food store is good, food stage is good, stressors, okay," and you can be through it very, very briefly.

You can also record more details because you want to see what the bees are foraging on. If you want to not record any stressors, but you want to go all the way down on the symptom level, or a third way is, I need more guidance. I don't know what unkept food looks like. Show me what unkept food looks like. I need a picture of it. I don't know what a bad smell could indicate as a symptom, give me that. That's the key piece to say we have little inspection flaw. Just four questions and you have three different ways depending on where you are, how much you know, how much you've been at beekeeping, you're able to take care of that.

All the other to-dos and records, we have a few pretty set ones. Anything from feeding, or splitting, re-queening, journaling, recording symptoms. There is a couple that most beekeepers will recognize that you can either schedule as a to-do piece or record if it's something that you just observed if you will. Then, of course, the ability to customize them a little bit, so if there's something that you want to do that you just did, you can add that too. The interesting one I talked earlier about, we want the design to work, so we spend a lot of time to make it helpful, make it fun, make it engaging.

The other aspect is, what does the app do for me? What does the app do for me as a beekeeper when I enter some data? We've worked very, very hard. This has been actually a very fun piece. We spend many, many hours with a huge Google Sheet, spreadsheet, and different thoughts to see what recommendations can there be. What combination between frames, honey, for example, food stores, symptoms, and brood stages should trigger what type of action by the beekeeper? It's almost 500 different recommendations that we've worked in, and that will be available in the new app, and they also come with a little recommendation system.

You get a recommendation and you can either say you like the recommendation or you did not like it. The goal again is here we start at the lower level. Working with the beekeepers, we improve the recommendations based on where they are overtime.

Jeff: Let's take this quick break for a word from one of our sponsors.

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Kim: It sounds somewhat like the Hive Tracks that I'm familiar with. You are collecting data from hopefully thousands of microclimates and joining them. Some person or some machine somewhere is going, "Okay, I'm taking data from here, and here, and here, and here. I'm lumping it together, and I'm coming up with-- Because you're in this microclimate over here, my recommendation to you is going to be different than my recommendation to the person that's 50 miles away in a different microclimate." You've got a machine somewhere that's making these decisions. How do I get my information to your machine and your machine back to me?

Max: That's a great question. That's exactly how it works. Again, beekeeping, it's very interesting that we've learned that about 80% of the beekeeping activities are similar across places, and then there is about a minimum of 20% where it gets more granular, where you say the microclimate comes in. Basically, the engine that we have takes a couple of if conditions, so, a couple of prerequisites. Then, as you said, it is where you are, and it's probably the point of location. It can be if you're in the mountains, or if you are a backyard beekeeper, if you're in an urban or suburban environment.

We have all of these small variables that we use as input to give you a recommendation back. Those recommendations are being delivered in the application. You don't have to do anything else than inspect your bees, record an inspection, do a to-do record, and then the app will feed those inspections back. Every time you enter some data, you get a couple of new recommendations for yourself or a couple of recommendations from your community, so the Hive Track users around you have done something similar.

James: Yes. One of the ways to localize the information is this concept that we've mentioned, community intelligence. Really, people within the same geographic area are generally going to see a lot of the same sort of behavior. You can have quite a bit of variation even within a bee yard from hive to hive. Again, if you aggregate a bunch of data together, then when beekeepers begin to add supers in your area, then it's pretty good that there's a honey flow going on. One of the other channels, if you will, of recommendations, or really just notifications is what's happening in your beekeeping neighborhood.

How many inspections have been done recently? Are people seeing particular stressors? We've got the typical group of stressors there. How many people, as I say, are adding supers? You get a sense of what's happening in the local beekeeping community, which, especially for newer beekeepers, that's something that they don't really have a good sense of. They don't have a historical beekeeping calendar in their head that they expect to follow. That's another piece of this. Overtime, you'll get a user-generated beekeeping flow within any particular geographic region, which would be, again, there's variations, but I'm sure you could tell me in Ohio, what's your normal time when your spring flow happens, summer flow, or whatever.

You have some sort of notion in your head of what that should be, and then when it actually happens, you compare it to that. Again, that's another piece of that. The maturing of this process to me, so we've got the framework in place. This would be the way to think about this, and we have some very simple models, to begin with. The idea is we send these recommendations out, and then the beekeeper themselves are able to say, "That was useful or that wasn't useful." Like some of these online things, even Google and others when they give you a result for a search, or a help, or something, they say, "Was that useful or not?"

We have that kind of self-correcting piece in there that we're able to use to improve it overtime. Again, I think this is the new piece of what hasn't been really anywhere before of, and using multiple data points from the beekeeper themselves plus the community to give feedback to the beekeeper. Again, one of our recurring questions or the recurring question is, what do I do next as a beekeeper? That's your daily task when you go to the-- Or whenever you got to the bee yard, you go, "I'm taking some assessment of what's going on. What do I do next if anything?" Equipping you with the right information to make the best decision you can at that moment in time is the ultimate goal.

Kim: I found a good question. I think you've already answered it, but the question is, every group has a guy who doesn't do anything like anybody else does, and he's entering the data into your system. I think what you just said was that, yes, we got an outlier here, but he's pretty much muffled by the other 29 people that are entering in. Although he has an effect, it's not a very big effect. That sound about right?

James: Right, and that's the concept. If you get enough data, then you will be able to identify the outliers or the ones that just don't fit with everyone else. It doesn't mean they're wrong, it also might be, wow, they're in an interesting spot. Something is different there, and so it just causes you to ask more questions, which is great, but that's the concept. Yes, you have a line that's normal, and then you can say what's the variations off on that. Actually, that's one of the concepts within the honey authentication concept that we're talking about, of how much honey can you produce in a given area that's normal amounts, and then how far outside of those normal boundaries are we. That's the concept.

Jeff: That's very close to the question I was going to ask in terms of honey production. The Hive Tracks and the new engine that you're creating and rolling out, is it geared more for the backyard beekeeper, or is there a version, or a way to use it if you're a sideliner versus a commercial guy? I can imagine it could be different for different levels of beekeeping.

James: Yes, it's absolutely different for different levels. We've discovered that in the past and created different versions of Hive Tracks in the past for that. This particular one is for the hobbyists, a few hives in their backyard beekeeper, and that's our core market for this particular, what we call the B2C app. That's what we're releasing first thing, but we've got, in our roadmap, circling back to those other groups. We already know what those groups need, and how this app is going to behave in those new contexts. I don't think we said this, this time, but this new version is its mobile-first, so it is a mobile app. It will have a companion web app presence as well, but your main interaction is with the app itself rather than through a web application, which is different than previous.

Kim: I'm guessing then that can use your data that other people have collected. I'm going to move my bees out west this year. Where's the best place to move them? I could search for that. Correct?

James: I'm not so sure you'd be able to search for that within the framework that we have.

Max: You'd be able to tune into your new community. That's the cool part. If you move over west, and you put on your Hive Tracks app, all of a sudden the community intelligence that you would receive, so, the little recommendations of what people are doing in the area, is no longer for your old state, but for the new state. Plus the blooming information you will see is also for the new state, for the new apiary. You're able to get an idea of your new local beekeeping community through the beekeeping app. Let's take that as a first step before we can tell you what is the best place to move your bees to in the US.


James: Yes. Also, a natural outcome clearly would be that there would be some master data set that would say this is how beekeeping is going in whatever location. Again, going back to that beekeeping season, if you will, of what that might look like for a particular region. You've seen from beekeeping clubs, that you'll have their own little localized calendar of, "This is when the spring starts, this is when our flows are, this is when we treat, or this is when the dearth is." They have some localized knowledge there. What I would argue is that we're going to end up with that, but for any place, and it's digitally backed or data-backed with real observations and real data, rather than the way it's been created, which is from real experience, except it's a snapshot in time, doesn't change over time very well, or it doesn't keep.

It's not dynamic enough. Etienne would have his season, and then we would have our season. Then Kevin Jester in Mims, Florida would have his season, which would all be very different. Again, if you're on the app, and you're in that location, it's going to match to what your location is and adapt to it if you would.

Jeff: To Kim's point, if he wanted to move out to Thurston County, Washington, and find the best place to drop his bees, he can't use the app to say, "I'm going to put them right next to Jeff's house."

James: I could foresee a tool that, an apiary suitability, which we've batted that around, "What if I dropped a hive or a yard at location X? Would it be a good spot?" There are lots of different layers of data that you could use to evaluate that. In this case, if the Hive Tracks data was part of that evaluation process, it would give you some insight for sure, and this isn't a good spot to talk about not revealing sensitive information about a beekeeper. That's very near and dear to our hearts of keeping beekeepers' data private to themselves and it only being in an aggregate sort of sense. Even there, there's some controls on what we are willing to let out.

Jeff: Good to hear. Good to know.

Kim: Looking at that picture then, theoretically, it sounds like I could get some relatively good information on where to go, but also when to go there.

James: Sure. Yes, that's all part of beekeeping is, what are the flow times? My son has a sideliner business, bee business that depends on multiple flows and moving to those flows at the right time. It makes his business model successful. Similar in a lot of different places that are honey producers, you're chasing the flow, whether you're in Texas or North Dakota, or, I don't know, in Yemen. You're chasing some desert bloom somewhere, right?

Jeff: Or up in Alaska chasing fireweed.

James: Yes.

Jeff: You're just all over the place.

Max: Yes. We really tried hard to say, "What are the sources of information to help me be guided through the season." We want to almost craft a story of a season together with a beekeeper, which is why we tried. It is what you do as a beekeeper, it's what other beekeepers do, it's what nature does, and it's what the weather does. We, from these four different groups, try to, can we now take all of that and present it to you as digestible pieces of information, as actionable pieces of advice in an application to get smarter and be able for beekeepers to balance those different information aspects?

I need to know a little bit about the weather, a little bit about the nature, a little bit about my own knowledge, and a little bit about the community knowledge to get to a point where I know what I want to do next as a beekeeper. That balance between these four sources of information is what we work towards. I think that the new app will be a good first task to help lots of beekeepers with making the right decisions.

Kim: That'd be one heck of a tool.

James: Kim, some of your questions, it depends on your perspective and who you are, what kind of beekeeper you are, or what questions you're trying to ask against the data set is how I would say that. Right now, we're, what questions would a beekeeper, a small-scale backyard beekeeper be asking? What information would they need? That's another lens to look at it, of, you have this data set, and then who's asking the question, and how you deliver that information is going to depend on who's asking the question. Through the app, it's the individual small beekeeper, but the kinds of questions of what's good forage area, or where are a lot of bees delivering ecosystem services right now to almonds?

They are delivering pollination services in the Central Valley of California, and that's going to result in a crop at the end of that. Any concentration of bees in any location is delivering some pollination service to that area and is having an impact. Again, it depends on who's asking the question, what lens you're looking at it. That this is going to give information to a whole host of stakeholders is another way to think about it. That this data and this information would bring value to that group and help answer their questions. It begins with the individual beekeeper and us making this valuable to them, make them a better beekeeper, have healthier bees, which then, that just has ripple effects across everything else downstream from that.

Jeff: A couple of episodes ago when you were on you talked about BeeXML. Is that still part of this process? Is there work on BeeXML and industry acceptance?

James: Yes. The BeeXML group is still active, and they have pretty much monthly meetings, I think, to take on, what's the next piece of data that we're trying to standardize, and they continue that process. For us, that's a very slow process. Developing any kind of standard is pretty laborious and challenging to get people to agree on it. What we've done is taken what's the full scope of data that's possible for beekeepers to collect. There are some good examples out there already. Boiling that down to what are the essential pieces, and we know that this will map back into a standard, how you would think about that.

We've studied what kinds of data is being collected, historically, looking at a lot of different data sheets, and things like that. There's the bee project that has this really nice data wheel of all different kinds of data that you might collect. Again, we're not constrained to that BeeXML because we know that what we end up with is going to map into that well.

Jeff: That's all good to hear because I'm a data nerd in many ways, whether I'm on a bicycle or on my bees, I have some sort of gauge or monitor. The problem with the beekeeping right now, I shouldn't say a problem, but one of the challenges I have as a data nerd and a beekeeper is that I can't use the data from one sensor and combine it with the information from another sensor in one dashboard on my computer screen and make sense of it or have it work together. That's what I would really like to see. If I was God and king of the world, I would like to see that ultimately, and regardless of what sensor I had, so I wouldn't have to stay with one sensor manufacturer, I could--

James: If you've got $100 million to invest and create the company that can buy up all the sensor providers, we'll unify them all for you.

Jeff: Let me check with the wife.


Max: Actually, Jeff, there is another project that it's actually funded by the European Commission that we are on with Hive Track that is called World Fair. I'm not sure if you've heard about the fair principles, and data being definable, accessible, interoperable, and reproducible to look into data sets and findings. We're in the working group that is in agro-biodiversity. Plant pollinator interactions, in particular. Here again, just the part of the work that we are doing is, as James was saying, to always make sure that we can track back to the standard.

The standard was going to be created that everybody, if you're an IoT company, or you're a software company, there is a way to translate your data into that standard, that it could be put together with other data sets. First, it's really important to contributing to those standardization processes and always to know whether it's fair criteria or it's BeeXML criteria to be able to map that back at a given time to take more and more use case of it. Because if not, we will just end up or continue to be in our little silos, and the added value of the data being collected is going to be very limited.

James: Being a data nerd and liking data, the challenge there is actually collecting that data and entering that data. That's been the barrier, if you will, over the years. That's where I retooled and rethinking on Hive Tracks, what's the fewest data points that we can collect and still be effective in giving good advice. You have to back off from the real science side of it and collecting everything that an experimental project would require. Instead, what can we expect to get from an everyday beekeeper that's, again, it's not going to be a heavy lift for them, it's going to be easy to use and enjoyable for them, and give value back to them?

We want somebody like Kim to be able to use the app in the bee yard and it be useful to hi, and also be of service again to the broader community because Kim has a lot of experience, and the things that he's doing are going to be helpful to those people around him that are less experienced.

Jeff: Good answer. I appreciate that.

Kim: I don't know if I'm changing the subject here or not, but when I go visit your webpage- By the way, I recommend everybody listening to go look at their webpage. There's a ton of information out there that you can use to expand what you already know and to get introduced to the new products that they're dealing with. Prominent on that webpage is the word, blockchain. I hear that here and there, and I read Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, and The Economist magazine. I see that word, I still don't know what it means. What are you using that word for? What is that describing so that when the people listening to this see this on your webpage are going to go, "Ah, I see how that works," is that a fair question?

James: That's a very fair question. First of all, pardon the pun, it is a buzzword. [laughter] A lot of people use it as a buzzword to get attention just in this current technology mindset that we're in. Max, I'll let you explain if you want.

Max: Yes, I think that the easiest way to not create more confusion, it's always a bit hard, but think of maybe a database you can only write to. Think about it like that. It's a way to store, and you can only write to it. It just gets longer and longer. You can only write to it. That gives the advantage that any type of information that is being written to this database, to the storage system, will always be there. It will forever be there. That's I think the easiest way to handle it. The interesting, there's lot more, I'm trying to be as simple as it can get, there's a lot to how it is being stored that it's being stored across, there's copies of it in many, many, many, many different places.

Nobody could just change something in it. There's a few mechanisms to make sure you can only write to it and not delete from it. The interesting aspect of it is that it enables a lot of new services because of the fact that information can only be stored. This again is something we talked about a little bit earlier today. Think about the beekeeping season. Think about what it means during a season, what you ought to be doing during the season, to know that your bees are doing well and that you've produced enough honey at the end of the season as an example.

You will leave a story. Your interactions with the beehive create a story. There may be eight inspections during the year, it may be six a year. There may be one or two treatments, there may be one or two feedings. All of these points together, stored to a database that can't be changed, becomes a profile for your honey that could authenticate where it came from. If we knew that this data, the type of interactions that you had with your beehive over time in these different places, that information gets stored. I could look that up, that would tell me where your honey comes from exactly.

It would help with the traceability of your honey. That's one of the areas that we are looking into, we are working on, just this notion of you can't alter the data after the fact. That gives a lot of opportunity to authenticate where your honey came from, to authenticate how much your bees were flying, or even to authenticate your data vis-a-vis other actors out there. That's one way, how we would use this, and a very simple way to explain what blockchain--

Kim: Believe it or not. That makes an awful lot of sense in past conversations I've had with honey importers, and where they get their honey, and how they prove that it came from there, and the data that is collected on-site, and then the data is collected when it comes to the border, and then the data is collected when it gets to the packer's house. That blockchain is used in that industry a lot also. Suddenly, it makes sense. Thank you very much. [laughs]

Max: You're very welcome.

James: Kim, here, let me give my simple version as well if you want. A blockchain is a storage technology that acts as an immutable ledger, meaning that it's, you can write down data, events, whatever kind of data like a ledger, like you would write down transactions, and it is immutable. That's the part where it can't be changed, and it can't be tampered with. It's encrypted in such a way that it would be impossible for it to be tampered with. That's the simplest explanation of how it functions. Then anything that you write down on it, you can be sure that it will not be tampered with.

That's the key to it. When you use that storage technology for what we were just talking about with supply chains, and you've got those data points that you trust along the way, that's the other part, that the data that you trust, and you put it onto the blockchain, and that it's accurate, then it will never get modified. There's no way for someone to go and change that information.

Kim: It can't be changed, but it can be gathered. Is that a good way to put it? I can use the information there, but I can't change it?

James: Yes.

Kim: Okay.

James: Correct. That's what I mean by immutable ledger. You can write stuff down, but you can't go back and erase the zero and put a two if it's a ledger like that. That's really what it is. It gives us a tool. It's a storage tool, that's a storage technology, and for us and most of the people are using it, that's what its function is, is a storage tool that makes the data that's being stored there secure and we can trust it. That's the concept, is you're trying to generate trust. The blockchain storage technology is a way to build trust. You still have to deal with the original data source, and where it came from, and make sure that that is trustworthy information to put on it. It doesn't magically make the data that's there correct. It just locks in whatever is there, can't be changed.

Jeff: Kim, my simplest explanation is it's chiseled in stone.

Kim: [laughs] Good way to put it.

Max: Right, that's very right. There you go, lots of stones.

Jeff: Yes, lots of stones.

James: Hey, how about chiseled in digital stone? I like that.


Max: Okayyyy.

Jeff: Okay. We've lost all the beekeepers here because we're no longer talking about bees. We're coming up the end of our time, guys. Is there anything we haven't asked you about that you want to mention at this point in time?

Max: Yes, I think there is one little thing. Of course, our new app is just about there. It's today, one of these very few close days. It's something quite interesting and have a look. There's something else that we're doing, and that is a crowd equity campaign. We're going to have a big crowdfunding campaign that launches here in the next few days where, with an investment of just $100, people can support. Looking into what we do, and this is not a crowdfunding like a Kickstarter or an Indiegogo. It's an actual investment that allows anybody who would like to support and become part of the Hive Tracks community as an investor, as a stakeholder with a very normal amount would be very welcome to do so. Of course, there's lots of information on that on our website, but that's maybe the one other thing that we'd need to get out here today.

Jeff: Definitely. There you go, folks. You can have a chance to be an investor in Hive Tracks. We'll provide a link to that, to Hive Tracks, and even to that in the show notes to the episode. James and Max of Hive Tracks really appreciate having you on the show today. It's good to get caught up. You guys are on the leading edge of everything that's digital in beekeeping, and I really like that. I think it's a fun place to be as a data nerd that I am.

Max: [laughs] Yes, we'll compare notes on that. No, but thanks a lot for having us. This was phenomenal.

James: Yes. It's a fun place to be, and it's always an adventure, let's say, given how technology changes, and just the dynamic nature of it. Then throw in the dynamic nature of beekeeping and beekeepers themselves, and the industry, and yes, never a dull moment.

Jeff: All right, guys. We look forward to having you back next spring, and finding out how this goes, and see what's in store for Hive Tracks in the coming months. Thanks a lot.

Max: Yes, thanks so much.

Kim: It's good. It's been fun, guys. Thank you.

James: Thank you. Same here.

Max: Bye-bye.

James: Bye, y'all.

Jeff: It was good to see James back again this spring in Hive Tracks. He's always on the bleeding edge of technology and expanding what Hive Tracks can do.

Kim: Yes, I like following them, and seeing what they're doing, and what's coming up next. This one was bordering on science fiction almost. It's in the technology involved and the data that they're collecting, and how they're using that data, and now I know what blockchain means.

Jeff: [laughs] You can describe it too.

Kim: I can, yes. I've gained something worthwhile today without a doubt. Go visit the webpage because there's a lot of good information there, and it isn't going to cost you a ton of money, and it's going to going to be worth a million dollars.

Jeff: We were talking offline or off the recording. The other work they're doing in developing countries, the use of the application, and other ways in other countries, it's really neat and really, really cool. I would encourage you to take a look at what Hive Tracks is doing, and I'm glad to have them on the show. That about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on Apple Podcast, wherever you download and stream the show. Even better, write a review, and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like.

You can get there directly from our 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 sponsors, Global Patties and Strong Microbials, and Betterbee for their longtime support of this podcast. Thanks to HiveAlive for returning this spring, and thanks to Northern Bee Books for their generous support. Check out all of their books at Finally, and most importantly, we want to thank you, the Beekeeping Today Podcast listener for joining us on this show. Feel free to leave us questions and comments at Leave a Comment section under each episode on the website. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks a lot, everybody.

[00:54:26] [END OF AUDIO]

James WilkesProfile Photo

James Wilkes

Founder - Hive Tracks, Beekeeper, College Professor,

James Wilkes is a beekeeper, college professor, farmer, and entrepreneur. With a career in computer science higher education (Appalachian State University) and years of practical beekeeping experience that includes building a small family farm and bee business (Faith Mountain Farm), his sweet spot is working at the intersection of computing and honey bees. He brings to life technology solutions that create a positive impact for honey bees and the stakeholders and food systems that depend on them and enjoys engaging the beekeeping community to improve our understanding and care of honey bees and the planet we inhabit.

James’ mathematics and computer science background (B.S. from Appalachian State University and M.S. and PhD. from Duke University) collided with farm and beekeeping life to create the environment for the creation and founding of HiveTracks as well as the genesis of the Bee Informed Partnership both of which were launched in the same week in August of 2010 in concert with the EAS conference in Boone, NC. Life since that moment has been full of growing businesses, research projects, honey bees, children, and relationships with people from around the world who share a common love of honey bees and their environs including the hosts of this podcast!

Max RünzelProfile Photo

Max Rünzel


Max is the CEO and Co-Founder of HiveTracks. He joined HiveTracks following his appointments with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), where he worked on digital tools to empower smallholder producers. Being fluent in six languages and having lived on three continents, Max believes in a truly global solution to improving bee health.