Beekeeper: Profile Paul Vonk

Paul Vonk is the 2015 winner of Bayer's Community Leadership Award which recognizes individuals who use their interest in and commitment to honey bees to benefit their communities. Paul developed HiveTool™, a collection of hardware and free, open source software for beekeepers to continuously monitor bee hives, attract students to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education projects, and provide hive data to researchers.
Paul Vonk Beekeeper
Paul Vonk provides more information about his work with HiveTool in a blog and video.
Location: Mountain City, GA
Years as a beekeeper: 12
Local affiliation: Volunteers with the Highlands Biological Center and the Environmental Stewardship Program at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School managing hives and bringing bee science into the classroom.

Best thing about being a beekeeper?
Beekeeping is agriculture, and a beekeeper is a farmer.  I get a lot of satisfaction from growing my own food. There is the joy and wonder of splitting a colony and coming back a month later to find a new queen and frames full of brood. And finally, there is the thrill of opening a hive after the nectar flow ends and harvesting beautiful frames of golden honey capped with pristine white wax.

Can you provide a brief overview of your beekeeping business and any related work?
I started beekeeping as a hobby. The first year I harvested a gallon and a half of honey (“not bad”), the second year, four gallons (“hey, I have this figured out”), the third year – zero! (“oops, what happened?”)  There were more successes, many more failures, and always much to learn. I lost a lot of bees in the process. By 2011, I was tired of losing hives and had the opportunity to learn commercial beekeeping from one of the best, Bob Binnie, owner of Blue Ridge Honey Company.

During my first week of work, Bob and I drove to each apiary in the Appalachian Mountains, adding supers (hive storage for extra honey) to the hives to prepare for a nectar flow. As we drove from yard to yard, we discussed how honey production varies significantly at different locations, but how there are few discernible differences in the surrounding environment. We don’t know why some locations produce so much honey and others so little. I had the idea of setting hives out every few miles, measuring the honey produced, and creating a map of the honey-producing areas.  

How did you turn your idea into the reality of developing HiveTool™?
Started coding. As a programmer and engineer, it was easy to create an open source computerized system that measures hive variables (weight, temperature, humidity, and weather) and uploads the data to the Internet.  Going open source made it easy to get ideas and help from others.  From the drivers that talk to the sensors, to the database and web server software, and even the Raspberry Pi computer, I was able to leverage off the open source community.  

Not only is HiveTool open source, it is open notebook, meaning the data is available for all to use.
HiveTool allows beekeepers to submit and compare data from their hives and makes the data accessible to beekeepers and scientists throughout the world. This helps beekeepers monitor hive health and better manage their hives to increase honey production and helps researchers, such as NASA's Honey Bee Net.

NASA's Honey Bee Net? What is NASA doing with bees?
Over 40 years ago, NASA began getting crop and environmental data from their low earth orbit satellites. They needed to correlate the data with what was happening on the ground. For this project, NASA is not interested in the health of hives, but measures plant/pollinator interaction to understand the effect of land use and climate change on the performance of the environment. Since the 1970s, the nectar flows are now four weeks earlier. In other words, spring has shifted one week earlier each decade in the last 40 years.
Did you face challenges in developing HiveTool™?
Yes! And we face challenges every day!  Everything from cows eating USB cables or gophers chewing through CAT5 cable, to a sensor manufacturer changing its firmware and breaking our software or the web hosting service changing settings on its server and taking down our website.

What would you say to students interested in a career in science, technology, engineering or math?
Whether you are interested in agriculture, animal behavior, art, biology, botany, chemistry, computing, electronics, food, horticulture, industrial arts, math, medicine, physics, programming, statistics, or sports, there is something about bees that will fascinate you and help you in your career once you start studying or working with them. There is always something to learn. There is something in bee science for everyone.

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