C2I 2022 Wild Card winner - BeeSave

A Nottingham-led project set to tackle a key threat to the UK’s bee population takes the C2I Wild Card top spot this year. Melissa Bradshaw reports.

Category: Wild Card - sponsored by Megger

Headline sponsor: Babcock International Group

Project: Innovative PCM Heat Storage Device for Control of Varroa Mites in Beehives (BeeSave)

Partners: Nottingham University, PCM Products Ltd, E.H. Thorne (Beehives) Ltd, Healthy Bees Ltd

Bees play a vital role in our ecosystem – according to Greenpeace, honeybees perform around 80 per cent of all worldwide pollination. 70 out of the top 100 human food crops, supplying the majority of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.

Essential to our food security, the declining bee population over the past 50 years is a key environmental concern for our planet, and several factors are thought to be at play. These include viruses, pesticides, poor nutrition and changing agricultural practices as well as parasites.

The Varroa mite is an external parasitic mite that attacks adult honeybees and their brood, a key threat to the UK’s bee population. Tackling and controlling the spread of Varroa mites is critical to supporting the honeybee population and ensuring food security and uncontaminated honey.

Nottingham University’s ‘BeeSave’ project hopes to address just this, with a solution involving a novel, efficient and convenient thermal management approach. The Nottingham researchers worked with industrial equipment supplier PCM Products, (PCMP), and beekeeping businesses E.H Thorne Beehives and Heathy Bees.

The research group, which specialises in sustainable energy technology, was inspired to work with bees thanks to a family member of the university research leader, who volunteers in an apiary, explained Nottingham University research fellow Emmanuel Tapia Brito.

“She addressed the research group to report on the present issue bees are facing as a result of the Varroa mite infestation,” Tapia Brito told The Engineer.

The team explained that currently, existing solutions include labour-intensive and time consuming biotechnical approaches, which require a high level of bee husbandry skills. Chemical approaches are also used, but these must be applied carefully to minimise honey contamination.

“Chemical treatments are now the most common and inexpensive method for eradicating the Varroa mite; nevertheless, they might taint the honey or harm the bees' health,” said Tapia Brito.

“It is also known that Varroa mites acquire resistance to these pesticides after a period of time, hence the chemical dose must be raised. As ours is a sustainable and cost-effective product, it is anticipated that it will swiftly become the solution of choice for beekeepers, initially in the United Kingdom and then globally.”

The thermal tolerance of Varroa mites and honeybees is different, with mites showing greater sensitivity to higher temperatures. This has led to research from the bee-keeping industry into thermal management approaches in recent years, with existing research including the use of thermal energy from solar radiation, oven heating and light treatment.

However, the BeeSave team explained, solar radiation’s effectiveness varies according to season and location, and overheating of the colony during summer is possible with this metho. Meanwhile, oven and light treatments are labour-intensive and have power accessibility issues: most beehives are placed in remote locations, and the process of removing brood frames can cause disturbance and stress for the bees.

BeeSave’s technology is claimed to be a first-of-its-kind solution, using a PCM (Phase Change Material) Pack which can be installed at the bottom of the beehive brood box with a re-settable drawer for ease of replacement.

The PCM pack is triggered to release heat and treat infected broods, able to be activated via remote control. After two hours it can be removed and recharged using a conventional oven. The heating and charging process does not interfere with the bees’ activities and does not depend on external weather conditions or power sources, as well as being a particularly cost-effective solution. This was confirmed by surveys given to beekeepers, the team said.

Tapia Brito said that due to Nottingham and PCMP’s extensive experience with phase change materials technology, technical obstacles were ‘quickly surmounted’.

“Unlike earlier projects, this one requires the careful treatment of living organisms, which presented the most difficulty. It was especially challenging to conduct on-site experiments without harming any bees,” he commented.

“At the same time every experiment had to be conducted in uncontrolled conditions and all these factors were a great challenge. Due to the natural cycles of bees, it is only possible to conduct testing during certain times of the year.”

The team placed a strong emphasis on bee care to overcome these difficulties, he said, adding that if there was any concern around bee harm or stress, the experiment was immediately interrupted.

PCMP’s main business activities are design and manufacturing of heating and cooling storage technologies, with special focus on PCMs and their applications. The company supported the design of BeeSave through PCM material characterisation to evaluate the suitable PCMs.

- BeeSave

Meanwhile, E.H Thorne Beehives’ track record of supporting around 40,000 beekeepers, and almost 100 years of experience making beehives in the UK, meant the company was well placed to support development of the BeeSave prototype and assist with its set-up in field trial location.

Tony Maggs, founder of Healthy Bees, set up the beekeeping business in 1990 and currently manages around 40-50 beehives. Healthy Bees collaborated on setting up the prototype for testing using one of its own beehives, as well as supporting construction and commissioning.

Nottingham University brought its expertise in testing the potential PCM materials and evaluating beehives performance via testing the effect of heat shock on bees, and the microbiological, physical and chemical changes to honey. The Nottingham researchers assisted PCMP with the PCM pack design and testing potential capsules.

As well as the positive impact on the bee population, the team highlighted many other important impacts of its technology – other environmental benefits include displacing more polluting technologies, and social impacts include new job opportunities for the UK.

The team plans for BeeSave to be integrated into hives around the UK, with significant opportunity for the UK supply chain to develop the home and export markets for the system. Immediate routes to market will include direct sales to industrial partners. The consortium plans to develop a financial plan addressing the issues related to post-project investment and funding.

“Once marketed, this product has the potential to be a complete game changer,” said Tapia Brito.

“It already has a commercial name and we are seeking more manufacturing and marketing partners for our product. Numerous experiments have already been conducted to demonstrate its efficacy, but more must be done.”