Bees have been dying in the millions—and that's a problem, because we really need bees. Up to 100 crops (worth an estimated $30 billion) rely on bees for pollination, and that's before we consider all kinds of other flora and fauna. We can't live without bees.
Exactly what causes Colony Collapse Disorder hasn't been established conclusively, though there are two main suspects, according to a recent USDA study. One potential culprit is a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which sucks a fluid from bees' circulatory system and carries a virus. The other is the growth in the use of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Since 2006, when neonicotinoids started to be deployed widely, beekeepers have reported losing 30% to 90% of their hives.
Whatever the cause, farmers are going to need to rebuild the bee population, and that means more hives and more beekeepers. The Open Source Beehives Project is hoping to achieve that by spreading simple, low-cost hive designs to make it easy for anyone to start their own, and encouraging collaboration among designers, technologists, researchers, and bee lovers. So far, it has two templates: the Colorado Top Bar and the Warré. The groups behind the designs are working on improvements all the time.
"The design is printable from a single sheet of plywood, highly transportable, and assembles in minutes without screws or glues, like a Wikihouse for bees," says Tristan Copley Smith, from Open Tech Forever, a group that disseminates open-source technology. Open Tech Forever came up with the open-source hive concept at about the same time as another group, Fab Lab Barcelona, and now the two are hoping to get others involved.
As well as propagating cheaper hives, their aim is also to improve bee monitoring. Both designs call for cheap sensors that measure humidity, temperature, and other readings. This will help beekeepers track the health of colonies and researchers learn more about what actually happens inside the hive. The Warré version is already installed in several locations, and the sensors have been tested in Barcelona, Paris, and Brussels. You can see more about the technology here:
"Our aim is to create a mesh network of smart colonies, generating data to share openly on the Smart Citizen platform for study of Colony Collapse Disorder and its causes," Copley Smith says. "We want to encourage and lower barriers to backyard beekeeping, while educating best practices and creating automated alert systems for beekeepers."
The Open Source Beehives Project has more about its plans and how you can get involved in this open letter. "We're currently looking for collaborators interested in testing out hives and sensors with active colonies, preferably in the southern hemisphere where it's currently spring," Copley Smith says. "We'd like to do as much testing as possible before launching a Kickstarter campaign in January."