Varroa is a growing problem for beekeepers the world over says Vatorex founder and CEO Pascal Brunner and so the Swiss company has developed a thermal treatment for beehives in an attempt to provide beekeepers another weapon in their arsenal. Lifehive is yet to hit the market in New Zealand, but Brunner is in the country gathering Kiwi beekeepers’ opinions and overseeing some trials in North Canterbury. We find out more about the piece of Swiss beekeeping ingenuity.
The Lifehive is a component-heavy brood box and frames. There’s the eight wooden frames with plastic inserts, which themselves have coils of wire and foil embedded to convey the heating, then the box itself has LiFePO battery affixed on one end, from which a wire goes through the box to convey electricity to a long, flat terminal running the length of the main recess to connect with the lugs of the frames. Then there’s the clamp to hold the frames down to ensure connection. In the field, a solar panel is required to power each unit, either placed on the hive lid or beside the hive.
It's a lot of componentry, but it’s all in the hope of solving most beekeepers biggest challenge – controlling varroa. By heating brood frames to 42°c for three hours when capped brood is present, Brunner says they can kill juvenile mites recently laid. It’s impact on foundress mites is less certain, and phoretic varroa are unharmed.
Vatorex launched Lifehive in Switzerland in 2016 to the hobbyist market, but wanting to take the business to the next level they are now looking to commercial beekeepers in larger beekeeping markets, Canada and New Zealand. At Waiau Apiaries in North Canterbury Nick Belton has ran a few small-scale trials in recent years, and this spring has 100 hives fitted out with Lifehive. Larger trials are also being run in Canada through the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.
“Varroa is such a big problem in the beekeeping industry and it will grow, that's for sure. We can look at Europe, you can look at North America, look at Switzerland. The path where it goes is clear. So, Lifehive can solve these problems,” Brunner says.
The potential of thermal treatment of beehives for varroa control gained attention in New Zealand in 2020 when the Hivesite team (as featured in the January 2021 issue of Apiarist’s Advocate) from Waikato received two awards at the national Field Days for their heated beehive base-pad. Since then development of that product has stalled, with difficulties in harnessing enough power, and therefore practically pricing the product, being major issues according to the developers.
Brunner says they have not determined a retail price for Lifehive to New Zealand beekeepers yet, that will hopefully come in the next year as they continue adaptations.
The current iteration of Lifehive is the sixth generation. With the heating terminals inside the specially designed frames, bees must be shaken into the hive to start wax building afresh. There are eight thermal frames per box with two standard outside frames. Once comb is drawn and brood is laid out, then the most inventive piece of the technology kicks in. An algorithm – which Brunner is coy to explain the details of due to commercial sensitivities – measures when capped brood is present on each frame and administers the heat treatment.
“It carries out time series analysis, taking measurements every three hours and through that we can determine when there is capped brood. That follows a distinct pattern. That's the moment when we need to treat, because the varroa goes into the cell right before capping, so then we can kill the juvenile varroa,” Brunner explains.
So far the value propositions for beekeepers have been wide ranging the CEO says, giving him confidence the product will find a use in New Zealand.
“The interest is quite high. It's interesting, there is not that one single selling point or proposition they are after. It really differs between beekeepers. Some are into bringing their amitraz levels down in the honey. Some like the idea of treating in remote mānuka places. Some others have had high losses and are wanting to better manage varroa. Some just want to boost productivity,” Brunner says.
Performance of Lifehive can be monitored remotely, with it connecting to a server using LoRa technology. That means transmitting to a “gateway” terminal which is in turn connected to the 4G network. At this stage it is just the varroa heat treatments that are monitored via this server, but Brunner says there is potential to incorporate more hive monitoring data in future adaptations.
It’s technology with a lot of potential, but also plenty of hurdles to overcome before it is a practical reality for most commercial operators.