BroodMinder startup aims to help beekeepers with data
STOUGHTON ‒ For Rich Morris, a backyard beekeeping hobby and a career spent as an electrical engineer has led to the creation of a new business that brings together data from beekeepers all around the world. This coalescence of data gleaned from more than 8,000 beehives is aimed at helping improve the health and productivity and even the longevity of bees.
Morris kept bees as a hobby for the last 15 years, while working as vice president of operations for a company in Madison that did medical, consumer and software consultancy. (For one project, he and his team developed a tooth-brushing robot for a manufacturer who wanted to test the toothbrushes they were making. They named him Gumby.)
But when the firm changed hands and the corporate philosophy changed, Morris left with the idea of starting his own company. He put out a crowd-funding request to see if there would be interest in his idea for data-gathering equipment installed in beehives. Five hundred people responded. One avid beekeeper in Virginia responded that “it was a dream come true!”
That “crowd” helped give birth to his new business The BroodMinder Company almost eight years ago. Morris has a crew that includes two other full-time people and five part-timers, including several in Stoughton but others in Virginia, Massachusetts and even in France. His business card proclaims him the “Lead Drone.” The company builds and sells equipment that collects beehive health data including temperature, humidity and the weight of the hive in a system that is affordable and easy to use. There were other companies providing similar systems but they were very expensive. His idea was to offer lower-cost equipment that could be used by more beekeepers.
His other idea was to collect and store the data from the hives in the cloud for free, as long as beekeeping customers agreed that the data could remain in the public domain. BroodMinder’s sister company allows for the collection of data from thousands of hives around the world so it can be analyzed and used by other beekeepers.
“The idea was that if we all pitch in together we’ll get to something better,” he explained during an interview at his shop in downtown Stoughton.
Beekeepers can upload data from their hive monitors to the cloud and researchers are able to compare the shared data by region, zip code or on a hive-by-hive basis. Morris explained that this will allow the beekeeping community to gain insights into hive distress and develop interventions to improve outcomes.
The company takes its name from the fact that a stable temperature in the Brood Zone – 92 degrees to 98 degrees Fahrenheit – indicates bees are raising a brood of new bees. The queen bee lays eggs at the rate of 1,000 eggs per day and the rest of the bees are taking a variety of actions to keep the hive in that temperature range. They might deliberately and collectively do a move he likened to shivering to adjust the heat in the hive.
He shared that a set of data from one beekeeper that showed a dramatic drop in temperature.
“I told the beekeeper that I thought he must have crushed the queen when he opened the hive to inspect it. We can see exactly when those things happen,” he said. “If the queen disappears, it’s an emergency for the hive.”
During the summer, bees may only live six weeks and need to be replaced. During winter they huddle together in the center of the hive to conserve energy and may live as long as six months.
While 80 percent of their beekeeping customers are in the United States, Morris said the rest are in far-flung places including Europe and even Australia, where they just sold a large number of devices.
“Perth, Australia is about as far from here as you can get,” he said.
A colleague in France is selling the BroodMinder equipment throughout Europe where pollination of crops is important to get all of the crop to ripen at the same time. Sunflowers are one example of this. Morris said that without bees crops like corn, soybeans and other grains would not be affected but foods like fruit would be harder to come by and more expensive.
Morris tells the story of his first shipment of devices that went out to customers with a humidity sensor that turned out to be defective. When he started to get the data back, he knew there was a problem because the humidity measurement went up and stayed there.
At that point he says he faced a dilemma – he could just close the company and call it quits on his idea or he could replace all those defective sensors at a cost to his new business. He decided to replace the equipment and says that he is still reaping the goodwill benefits from those who know he stands behind his products.
One of the reasons for building more accessible, less expensive bee-box monitors was that the demographics of beekeeping generally ran to older, white males who want to raise bees economically. As more beekeepers were based in urban areas, they were more often women and younger people, and Morris could see there was an opening for products like his.
“I saw that as a new opportunity to gather data from backyard beekeepers,” he said.
Beekeepers like the fact that they can read their hive data on their smart phones and that it can be delivered via Wi-Fi or cellular devices to the database in the cloud. One of the challenges for the business is that “there is a boatload of software” needed to manage all that data.
Another challenge is that beekeepers often have to switch their brood monitors from one hive to another because a hive dies off. Knowing where the sensors are is essential to keeping all the data straight.
The building he and his wife Laura, a retired nurse, bought on the main street of Stoughton for the BroodMinder headquarters was built in 1858. Over the decades it has been a law office, a trophy shop and a yarn shop. These days, Laura has remodeled it to contain a production and shipping facility in the back and work space in the front. Laura is working to convert the building's upstairs rental unit into an an Airbnb.
The devices Morris and his crew build and ship out of the Stoughton headquarters are all made from locally produced components.
“The farthest we source parts is from Chicago,” he said. Some of the parts don’t travel very far at all – they are 3-D printed in the storefront building.
While some startup companies have investors, Morris said his is all self-funded, which gives him total autonomy.
“If we see something we want to do, we don’t have to worry about getting permission from investors. It’s been fun – the more you learn, the more you figure out.”
Varroa mite devastating
The Varroa destructor mite, which entered the United States in the mid-1980s has been a huge problem for bees, contributing to the loss of 50 to 60 percent of the bees every year. Morris said that there should be 80 to 90 percent survival and probably would be without the invasive mite. When that bee devastation occurs, beekeepers must buy or rebuild their bee populations.
Morris and his colleagues have recently received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a camera to place in hives that will allow them to count the number of mites invading the bee population. The mites show up as dark spots on the bellies of the bees.
The initial small business innovation research grant has been aimed at testing the concept. A second-phase grant, working with Purdue University, will aim at getting the cost down low enough so it could be used in every hive.
The current test, he explained, is to gather a cup of bees from the hive and douse them in alcohol, which kills them, then look for the mites.
“As a general rule, beekeepers hate to kill any bees, so this test isn’t very popular," he said. "Many beekeepers just ‘hope’ they don’t have mites and ‘hope’ is not a good strategy because mites reproduce exponentially in the hive.”
Besides stressing and debilitating the bees where they attach, mites are vectors for disease caused by viruses that can bring all kinds of problems into the hive; the mites have become resistant to a host of standard treatments. Morris said that having a way for beekeepers to know the level of infestation in their hives will help them know what the threshold is.
“It’s animal husbandry,” he said.
The mite originated in Asia, where bees have since developed resistance to their predations. But bees in this country have no such immunity.
Purdue researchers are doing genetic work to breed bees that chew the legs off Varroa mites, he said. They are calling them “ankle biters.” If that strain of bee could dominate the population, it could potentially put an end to the mite problem.
The BroodMinder equipment, by keeping track of the weight of the hives, is not only a way to measure the health of the bees, but can be used as a measurement of the environment. Morris said some researchers are using the hive weight data from year to year to track climate.
“Nectar in the hive correlates to blooming time of something like the black locusts. And that compares directly with climate. Comparing those weights from year to year can give researchers a snapshot of climate change," the Stoughton man said.
Morris grew up on a farm with a veterinarian father and a mom who worked as a nurse. (His brother still farms the family’s farm in Illinois.) He landed in Stoughton 27 years ago because it was close to his new job and it was a good place to raise a family.
For more information, go to BroodMinder.com or email Morris at Info@BroodMinder.com.