By: James Wilkes
Hive Tracks is beekeeping software created by beekeepers for beekeepers with the goal of improving the quality and experience of beekeeping for everyone with the result being healthy bees! Hive Tracks is a web application, which simply means you can access the Hive Tracks software through a web address, hivetracks.com, using any internet enabled device including smart phones and tablets. The vision for Hive Tracks was born in the minds of two beekeepers who live and keep their bees in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, an area rich in beekeeping tradition and well known for tasty honey varietals including the world famous sourwood honey. These two beekeepers, Mark Henson and myself, dreamed of utilizing cutting edge technology to build easy to use tools and services to help beekeepers, ourselves included, have healthy and productive honey bee colonies. Our hope was that by maintaining information like records of inspections and events in hives and beeyards, every beekeeper will be equipped with the information needed to make wise management decisions for their bees. Whether you have a couple of hives in your backyard or a couple of hundred in varietal honey production or several thousand colonies for pollination, knowing the current state your bees is essential to being a successful beekeeper. This article gives a brief backstory of the beginnings of Hive Tracks.
The story of Hive Tracks is full of coincidence or divine providence or whatever you want to identify as the cause of events that come together in just the right way. One example is how the creators of Hive Tracks found each other. Mark Henson was a professional software engineer with decades of experience in software development and a masters degree in computer science. He lived in Boone, NC, with his wife and daughter and telecommuted to work very early each morning with a software team in Great Britain. He was a relatively new backyard beekeeper with a hive count varying from a few to more than 10. I was (and still am) a Professor of Computer Science at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, where I have been teaching for 26 years, and I have a PhD in computer science. My wife and children and I live in Creston, NC, which is very close to Boone, on Faith Mountain Farm. We are sideliner beekeepers as part of our farm business and when the Hive Tracks idea was born, we kept about 40 hives and now have more than a 100 with plans to continue to grow. Mark and I moved in the same beekeeping circles, namely the Watauga County Beekeepers Club and as honey sellers at the local farmer’s market, so it was no surprise when Mark and I were considering our nascent ideas for Hive Tracks that mutual acquaintances suggested we get together. So, on a snowy afternoon in late February 2009, Hive Tracks was born over a lunch meeting.
From the beginning, our ideas were very similar. I was standing at a hive in my beeyard that previous Summer of 2008 ready to perform an inspection. I scratched my heading trying to remember what I observed the last time I was inspecting this hive. Ever done that? In a moment of clarity, I caught a glimpse of what the future could be like: walking up to a hive, a handheld mobile device (smart phones were not so smart back then) recognizes the hive being inspected and shares information with the beekeeper that will help with this inspection, like the health or strength of the hive, the queen status including her age, any unusual observations at the last inspection, medications or feed that should be checked, honey flows in the region, tips on what to look for at this time of year, etc. I saw the future, but did not see how to make it a reality. Mark’s innovation came to life in a conversation with his wife on a long car trip home during Thanksgiving of 2008. With two years of beekeeping under his belt, Mark’s interest in improving his own beekeeping combined with his software expertise resulted in him being driven to create a prototype hive information system by Christmas of 2008, a month after his initial brainstorm. It was this prototype that he showed to me at our first meeting, bringing life to ideas that previously lived only in my head. Mark had already shown the prototype to Shane Gebauer of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm at a bee meeting and later we showed it to David Tarpy from the Entomology Department at NCSU at the North Carolina state bee meeting. Shane and David have both encouraged us and have been supportive of Hive Tracks over the years.
Ideas are relatively easy to dream up, but implementing them is the real challenge. In the case of Hive Tracks, a plan was made to develop the first production version of the software with a launch date of August 1, 2010 coinciding with the 2010 Eastern Apicultural Society Conference, which happened to be held in Boone, NC that year. One of those happy coincidences referenced earlier. The first production version of Hive Tracks was created during the year preceding the conference with innovative features including a digital representation of each hive in an apiary based on the hardware components of the hive and graphical indicators of hive health and queen status. The first of its kind (that we know of) hive editor allows the beekeeper to maintain the proper hive configuration as it changes throughout the season. Mark never knew how many different components beekeepers used until trying to represent them all! Components are still being added to this day so send us your favorite non-standard component to add to the list. Just kidding! Following the initial launch, we were excited to see 400+ users signed up by the end of August.
By the end of 2010, 800+ people had registered accounts with Hive Tracks with no real marketing other than a favorable review in Bee Culture and word of mouth through bee club presentations. Growth in user accounts has always been steady with over 6000 users by the beginning of 2013 and continuing to this day. We now serve a user base including over 25,000 registered users in 152 countries managing over 125,000 hives in 25,000+ yards.
Most of this growth has predictably been in the United States and more specifically in the eastern half of the U.S. where there are more backyard beekeepers who make up the majority of our users. The average number of hives per user is around five, but we have a surprising number of sideliner and even commercial beekeepers who are finding it useful for their operations.
From early on we accepted donations, and a few users did donate which helped with some of the costs, but mostly expenses were out of our pockets along with a healthy dose of sweat equity (funny, that sounds a lot like beekeeping to me). In June of 2013, we added a business partner with the goal of advancing the development of Hive Tracks into a sustainable business. Toward that goal, in December of 2013 we released a completely rewritten subscription based paid version of Hive Tracks with better graphics, more features, and faster response time. After three and a half years of users telling us what new features they wanted and based on our own needs, the new version included a number of value added features including additional hive types like nucs, uploading of photos and videos, a hive hardware inventory, integrated calendar and to do lists, group sharing of data, and iOS and Android mobile apps for offline work.
The subscription based model provided just enough resources to engage the beekeeping community in a continuous improvement cycle in which we are always working toward the ultimate goal of improving the quality of beekeeping for everyone. And this year subscription fees and grant funding from the Healthy Hives 2020 project have supported several important initiatives. One is the community feature that brings beekeeping clubs, classes, and friends together on the Hive Tracks platform to share information and insight with one another. In addition, we now offer a simplified hive health measure called the Healthy Colony Checklist that is putting the beekeeping community on the path to bee data standards which are the foundation for bee data analytics. Another important initiative is the ability to record varroa loads for each hive and monitor those loads over time both individually and collectively. Hive Tracks also joined with the Mite-a-thon and MiteCheck projects to promote a focused week of Varroa monitoring in early September in which Hive Tracks users were able to share Varroa load data they collected automatically with the MiteCheck web site. We have no shortage of great ideas and will continue to build on them in the coming year!
Meeting New Demands
Statistics show that the majority of our current users are of the backyard variety, but there are several hundred users in the sideliner and commercial category as well. Inquiries at beekeeping conferences and through our web site have shown an increasing demand for software solutions for sideliner and commercial beekeepers. In response to that demand, over the past three years we developed Hive Tracks Commercial, a commercial apiary management system, that was officially released at the 2017 North American Beekeeping Conference in Galveston, Texas. In talking with commercial beekeepers and from working in their operations, we’ve found that keeping updated data as fundamental as yard locations, hive counts per yard, and hive grade/status is a struggle for many operations. This observation alone supported the need for apiary management software that can make this information easily accessible and accurate. Once the day to day operations and associated task management are added to the mix, commercial beekeepers quickly acknowledge their need for help in managing the flow of information and communication within the operation.
There is much more to come as the potential benefits of technology to our collective beekeeping experience are quite profound and exciting to consider and pursue. As you begin your beekeeping adventure, I invite you to join your fellow beekeepers and the Hive Tracks team as we all strive to be better beekeepers by equipping ourselves with the right tools and information to keep healthy honey bees. Hive Tracks is committed to pursuing excellence in beekeeping and will continue to work to add features and functionality useful to all beekeepers. In the end of course, the most important part of your beekeeping is to spend time in the bees!