Hive management system helps keep track of 1.5 billion bees and their valuable produce reports Bill Bennett.

Manuka Health turned to Eagle Technology when the Ministry of Primary Industries told honey producers they needed to identify the locations of bee hives if there is a disease outbreak.

Te Awamutu-based Manuka Health is one of New Zealand's largest manuka honey producers.

It manages thousands of hives and 1.5 billion bees throughout the North Island to make manuka honey and honey-based health products.

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Jamie Till, Eagle's technical advisory manager, says at first his company worked on a geographic information system (GIS) looking after hive locations.

Eagle Technology technical advisory manager Jamie Till demonstrates the ESRI mapping system build for Manuka Health. Photo / Supplied
Eagle Technology technical advisory manager Jamie Till demonstrates the ESRI mapping system build for Manuka Health. Photo / Supplied

It soon developed into a more complete hive management system.

He says: "We spent two years looking at where the hives and landowners were.

"We entered this data into the GIS system along with information to help beekeepers find their way to the sites and pointing out any hazards they might encounter getting to the hives.

"Many of the manuka hives are in remote and hard to access places. Bees return to the hives and sleep at night," says Till. "That's when beekeepers do much of their work, it means the bees are less stressed which is important.

"We don't want the beekeepers stumbling and falling in the dark when they are moving hives. This is an important health and safety matter. If there's a new hazard, we add that to the data.

"The beekeepers use mobile devices to navigate and enter data. We designed dark screens for them that are suitable to view in the dark and we built the screens for a minimum amount of touch.

"If, say, there is a waterfall to cross to get from the road to the hive we make that really apparent on screen."

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Till says the Eagle-configured system was also able to give Manuka the information it needed to place hives where they might be more productive.

Eagle Technology is the local distributor of Esri's range of geographic information system software and specialises in integrating GIS systems. GIS is commonly used to manage a range of geographic data using digital maps.

It is often used by organisations like local councils to track assets, but it is also ideal for tracking commercial assets like hives.

"We spent time with the customer working to understand what their requirements were," says Till.

"We built a geographic first system that could capture all of the hive data, along with the performance of the bees and the quality of the product coming out of the hives."

Manuka honey is valuable. A full hive is worth a lot of money and they are a target for criminals.

This means hive owners do their best to hide them in an area that is going to be productive, which makes accurate maps of their location essential for beekeepers working in the field. They drive as close as they can to the sites.

The software also provides them with optimised routes to help beekeepers travel between sites. This helps them to be more productive.

Provenance is also important for Manuka Health's customers.

Till says one of the features of the GIS system is that it provides the company with full traceability right the way through the supply chain so that at any point Manuka can identify where a particular batch of honey came from.

"This goes all the way through to the product on the shelves in store. It's a way to reduce fraud and to help customers know they product they are buying is genuine."

Till says Manuka Health hadn't previously used GIS. In the past they would store information on spreadsheets. "They didn't have any way of capturing their hive information, they could have done something through their spreadsheets or maybe through a CRM (customer relationship management) system.

The ESRI mapping system links information to geographic locations and displays them as a series of layers overlaid on a map. Photo / Supplied
The ESRI mapping system links information to geographic locations and displays them as a series of layers overlaid on a map. Photo / Supplied

"The ability to place all their sites geographically and to get information on how each hive is performing over a season helps enormously on the day. Moreover, it helps with planning on where to put hives in future seasons.

"You can quickly see which sites house the high performing hives.

"Because you can overlay the hive information with other geographic information such as soil conditions, humidity, access to water or weather data you can understand what makes a that site high performing.

"Armed with that information you can then go and look for similar sites for new hives."

Till says the beauty of GIS is that you can layer all types of information. You can even bring in things that you might not think are necessarily related and see if there is a connection with productivity.

Manuka uses real time dashboards designed to simplify work for the beekeepers who also spend time entering data into dashboards through their mobile devices.

"The real time dashboard works through the entire cycle of a beekeeper's job," says Till.

"It breaks things down into the various seasons and the tasks they have to do on each visit. The software will highlight the next hive they have to visit. It has become so much more than a reporting tool.

"For us the biggest job was to understand their requirements and their workflow. It meant learning what they could do better. We have to put ourselves in the position of the people doing the work."

Although the system is cloud-based and mobile, Till says the beekeepers don't have to have a mobile data connection for it to work. There is enough data stored on the mobile device.

Eagle has configured Manuka Health's system to give a range of different dashboard views to different users. There are three levels, an operational view for workers on the ground, a regional view for their managers and a nationwide view for headquarters to help with decision-making. It means people can drill down through the data to see if a site needs particular attention.

One aspect is that Manuka Health has now started benchmarking crew efficiency. The system can quickly highlight where a team of beekeepers might have too much work and more resources might be needed.

Till says Manuka Health is now using the software as a workforce planning tool, rather than just relying on what they see or are told, they now have evidence to back up decisions.