Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
James Wilkes is saving the world one bee population at a time through entrepreneurship and technology.
This seems to be a day and age of causes, with many people focusing on niche ideas to fight for and support. In the case of Dr. James Wilkes, he has combined childhood interests with a stellar academic career, digital innovation, and even the use of crypto-currency to further a cause that might just save the world: protecting the beehives of the planet Earth.
When it comes to the decline of the bee population in recent years, the implications are staggering should the species face any kind of holistic demise. If plant life is not pollinated sufficiently and crops do not get to grow as they need to, life on this water-covered orbiting rock is in for a drastic change.
Wilkes is not only dealing with this issue by advocating for the cause and furthering education about these intriguing flying insects that have been around for 100 million years; he is using new technologies and entrepreneurship to make a difference.
Wilkes is a professor in the department of computer sciences at Appalachian State University, located in Boone, North Carolina. At his mountaintop acreage located in nearby Ashe County, Wilkes is also a farmer and a beekeeper who cultivates over 150 hives on his land with his family. And relatedly, he is the CEO and co-founder of the Blowing Rock Software Company and its main creation, HiveTracks.com. The app and website are, in his words, “a hive management software system for beekeepers.”
When Capital at Play visited Wilkes, he was fresh off of a trip to Rome, Italy, where he attended a conference on the plight of the bee at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Though one would think jet lag might be in play, Wilkes is energetic, focused, and open to conversation about all that is going on in his life. As we enjoy a cup of excellent small batch java at Hatchet Coffee Roasters in Boone, we discuss his Italian adventure and the ever-changing aspects of his life.
Parasites, Pesticides, Pathogens,
and Poor Nutrition
“Both of my parents were public schoolteachers when I was growing up in Eden, NC,” says Wilkes, outlining his dual career trajectory. “I originally wanted to be a math teacher. Computers came into my world when I came to Appalachian State University in 1983 to study computer science and mathematics, [although] technology back then was pretty rudimentary! When I was a kid, my dad had beehives. In 1964 he and his buddies ordered a package of bees from Sears and Roebuck. By the time I was born, we had a couple of beehives in the backyard, so I kind of grew up with them. I began to keep my own hives in 2000.”
Fast-forward to the present: While attending the recent United Nations symposium in Rome, Wilkes got the chance to spread the word about Western North Carolina with his conference mates.
“I took a lot of products from my farm business there and gave them out as gifts, so there are some Faith Mountain Farm goods now floating around Italy,” he explains. “I shared some of my sourwood honey with the largest honey producer in all of Italy while networking. Beehives are very complex systems, so if you think there is one little thing that fixes everything that is wrong with the bee populations, then you are a bit naïve. Just like with humans and our immune systems and our health, there are a lot of factors that influence it. For honey bees in particular, we have identified parasites, pesticides, pathogens, and poor nutrition as problems. We call them ‘the Four P’s.’ Those are the pillars of honey bee health.”
Bee parasites, it turns out, take the form of the Varroa mite, while pathogens are found in the form of various viruses that exist in the bee population. And when you add pesticides and other man-made inventions to the mix, it is the root of many arguments and discussions concerning the fate of our bee populations in these modern times.
“Neonicotinoids, for instance, fall into the pesticides category,” continues Wilkes. “Pesticides are designed to kill bugs. If the honey bee comes in contact with it, it is going to have an effect. Now, is the effect lethal or is it sub-lethal, where it affects bees in a way that other things like poor nutrition are enhanced? Some bees may have a really strong immune system and they can metabolize the pesticide and get rid of it. But, they still have to deal with it, one way or another, and it does affect the bee population. As for the issue of GMOs (man-made genetically modified organisms), we don’t know what the effects are yet. There are unknowns concerning the unintended consequences or side effects of GMOs that we have yet to think about.”
When it comes to big agricultural companies and their part in the making of pesticides and more, Wilkes’ view of them is more nuanced than some might imagine.
“I don’t think those companies are totally wrong, but I don’t think they are totally right, either. They actually do a lot of work with honey bees and I have been in meetings with them. Their livelihood depends on growing stuff, which depends on pollination. It would be really idiotic on their part to not care about this issue. That being said, they still want to make money and produce products and things like that, so they might not be as sensitive as some people want them to be concerning bees. My point is: I don’t think it is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition, partly because I’ve been at the table with these people, and they definitely put a lot of resources into studying the issue and evaluating and trying to help push things forward.”
As suggested above, Wilkes is involved with the collection of beehive data in America, and the good news, based on his research, is that there have been some slight increases in the bee population in recent years. That is due to the growing popularity of being a beekeeper, and also because of an edible crop known as the almond.
“Right now, at this very moment in the spring,” says Wilkes, “the biggest pollination event on the planet is happening in the Central Valley of California. About two million honey bee colonies have been trucked into the Central Valley and they are in the orchards right now pollinating the almonds. You would not have almonds without it. The problem is that the process can mean that the bees can have a lack of diverse forage. The bees will go into an almond orchard and go after the almond blooms and grab the almond nectar and the almond pollen, which are both the bee’s food. But, they are getting only one source of pollen and nectar there, and that does not satisfy every nutritional need that they have. Nectar is mostly sugar and carbs with trace minerals in it. But it is the amino acid distribution in pollen that they need to function well as a colony. The bees grow very big while in the almonds. But after the pollination is over, they are removed from the orchards because you can’t just leave them there as it will hurt them. Diversity is the key.”
Thinking Globally While Acting Locally
Still, problems with bee populations remain and dangerous outcomes need to be averted. According to Wilkes, if we have no bees, we will have a lot less food to choose from to eat. Yes, there are crops that pollinate through the air, such as wheat and other grains, but the more nutritious and diverse foods found in our diet would be at great risk because they are pollinator dependent.
So, how does Wilkes make a difference concerning the bee colony loss crisis? He cultivates over 100 hives at his Faith Mountain Farm in Western North Carolina; he uses his academic position to help the Bee Informed Partnership, an organization that works with beekeepers worldwide to help understand which practices work the best; and he co-founded an impressive company called HiveTracks.
“Around 2008, I had this idea while standing in my bee yard, thinking that technology should play a role in beekeeping,” recalls Wilkes. “I thought, ‘We are still keeping bees like we did in the 1800s, and yet I have this device in my pocket that has the possibility to bring information to me that could help me be a better beekeeper and take better care of my bees.’ That was my lightbulb moment. HiveTracks.com gives you a place to record beekeeping information.
“Beekeeping is an observational exercise. You go and look at your bees often because you are evaluating the health of your colony every time you go in there. But, you have to know what happened before to know whether or not if they are on a good trajectory or a bad trajectory. Capturing that information in a way that informs you will help you in ways such as, ‘What am I looking for?’ and ‘What do I need to do?’ Just as importantly, on top of that, what if we aggregate all of this information and share it with each other worldwide?”
Indeed, a big part of the beekeeping culture is the sharing of information. HiveTracks is taking that aspect of this avocation to the next digital level.
“Beekeeping is very localized,” says Wilkes. “In your region, you are doing the same things and experiencing the same events and dealing with the same pressures as other beekeepers, so sharing that information with one another is important. Right now, we have two business models and two products at HiveTracks. We have one product for the hobbyists and one for the commercial beekeepers in California and elsewhere. HiveTracks.com is a subscription-based software service using mobile apps and web apps. It all works together to deliver information to you about your bees. And it has sharing mechanisms, so that if you and I are beekeepers, we can trade information and mentor one another and share peer-to-peer advice.”
To that end, Wilkes’ apps make it easy for a user to use a smartphone or tablet to simplify hive management, in particular recording of data relevant to a beekeeper, such as the current age and status of a hive’s queen and the relative health of the hive compared to previous observations. One can also share that data with other beekeepers in your network (as well as elsewhere in the world—see below) and view smart maps to determine where your and other nearby beekeepers’ bees are currently foraging. And by setting reminders via the app calendar, critical tasks like feeding and inspections will not be inadvertently overlooked. According to the HiveTracks website, there are three subscription tiers: Hobbyist, $5 per month for up to 10 hives tracked; Enthusiast, $10 per month for 20 hives; or Sideliner, $20 per month for 100 hives.
In terms of HiveTracks’ commercial applications, a business can more efficiently track tasks and progress from the field in order to have up-to-date and accurate data and, in turn, make informed decisions regarding the bee yard, thereby saving time and increasing productivity—and, hopefully, boosting the bees’ overall health. There are also three subscription tiers for commercial beekeepers that are set on an annual per-hive basis; for 2019 HiveTracks has added monthly webinars and training sessions, as well as optional in-person training. (Wilkes has written a useful article outlining HiveTracks’ origins and how the software is used at www.beeculture.com/hive-tracks.)
Wilkes notes that HiveTracks—which, to date, has tracked over 100,000 hives—now has over 30,000 users located in 152 countries and it is growing by the year. “It is amazing that we are so global. It helps to be invited to the United Nations if you are a global presence, and that all happened organically. It blows my mind that we built this little thing here in Western North Carolina, and it has migrated around the world as a great illustration of the power of the internet. Many people found our website and took the time to sign up, many for free at first. We wanted to build up interest in it as we worked to create a sustainable business model, and we are getting ready to pivot with that very soon as we perfect our data analytics abilities. We are working on our little niche in the industry and we will be ready when the greater beekeeping world begins to pay attention.”
Some in the beekeeping world are already paying attention. While Wilkes was at the confab in Rome, there was talk of holding a bee conference in a smaller country that recently experienced some governmental upheaval. The officials were having a problem contacting anyone associated with beekeeping in that nation. Wilkes consulted the HiveTracks website and realized that he had a customer from that very country who was a subscriber, and that simple connection impressed all who were networking with him in Italy.
Wilkes created HiveTracks nine years ago with fellow beekeeper Mark Henson, who is also a professional software engineer. Henson left the company about three years ago when his internationally-based day job expanded. The current team includes Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Green, Chief Strategy Officer Ged Moody, and Chief Analytics Officer Dr. Joseph Cazier, and together they have structured a compelling narrative with a potentially global appeal—and impact.
“What we pitched to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations office in Rome was that our honey bee data and the ability to collect it would help them achieve their sustainable development goals,” says Wilkes. “You could take an economic engine model into developing countries with our software, and it would help monitor, observe, and collect data that will help them and tell them if they are being successful or not.”
Wilkes already outlined the perils bees are facing. The good news about bees, though, is that they can adapt with resilience, whether they live in southern Florida or upper Saskatchewan in Canada. That applies to many places around the globe as well. HiveTracks wants to be a part of enhancing that reality going forward.
The Bee And The Blockchain
Another fascinating aspect of Wilkes’ endeavors is his knowledge and use of crypto-currency.
Since the creation of BitCoin in 2009, the world has wondered if crypto-currency was a real thing, as it is a web-based form of money that is not backed by any bank or government. Now, other crypto-currencies have been created, and a market has been established.
Wilkes has been using crypto-currency for years. He learned about the new technology from one of his Appalachian State University students and he was hooked. His eyes light up when the subject of crypto-currency is broached, and as the morning progresses, he pulls up one of his crypto-currency pages on his cell phone that shows a decimal point and a number that stretches back to the right for eight or nine digits. It represents the worth of his crypto-currency on any given day, just like checking the stock market.
“It is fascinating to think about the implications of such a currency,” says Wilkes. “Crypto-currency continues to bump up against the institutions of governments and your big banking companies. It is like Uber coming into the taxi systems in big cities. In Rome, for instance, Uber was phenomenally simple, and I have used it all over the world. Crypto-currency will similarly break up the stranglehold of the [financial] system. It’s all about the technology. Blockchain is the technology behind crypto-currency, which creates what I call an immutable ledger of a transaction that cannot be tampered with or changed. That is what gives crypto-currency its worth.”
Wilkes, who is set up to make transactions with his crypto-currency and is able to turn it into United States dollars at any time with his smartphone, remembers another lightbulb moment he experienced, this one involving BitCoin.
“In 2012 some of my computer students says to me, ‘Dr. Wilkes, we would buy some stuff from you at the farmers market if you would take BitCoin. We were goofing around, talking about my farm and the products that I sell, and they half-kiddingly made that offer. So, I set up my account so I could take BitCoin. Between these students, they bought about $100 worth of my goods and I ended up afterwards with about a half of a BitCoin. At that time, half of a BitCoin was worth about $300. When BitCoin went through the roof recently, it hit a very high peak, so I made a little money, all based on that initial $100 worth of honey I sold to my students. I have it written on my little whiteboard at the farmer’s market; ‘We accept credit, debit, BitCoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, whatever.’ It is a great conversation starter.”
To meld the two technologies, Wilkes and the HiveTracks crew are working on an adaptation of the blockchain technology that will authenticate the sources of honey throughout the supply chain.
Whether you sell your honey using crypto-currency or good ole Benjamins, beekeeping is a growing hobby that is very rewarding. And with a large part of the honey sold in stores and at fruit stands not being 100% pure, you will harbor no doubts about the actual quality of the honey that comes from your own hives.
Wilkes hopes that his HiveTracks app and website will continue to connect beekeepers located around the world who want to help our buzzing buddies stay healthy. If the opposite happens, then every country, culture, civilization, and crop could be adversely affected. As usual, while Mother Nature rules the planet, we humans can either be ethical and smart about how we do business, or we can become yet another society that ends up on the ash heap of history.
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