JAMESTOWN, N.D. — In the summer of 2019, David and Kate Lyall traveled to North Dakota from Australia, bringing their BeeDar with them. They wanted to see if they could improve a sunflower crop by using their bee-tracking technology.

The Lyalls, owners of Bee Innovative, already had seen success in fruit crops in their home country of Australia. In blueberries, managing the bees using BeeDar had improved the quality and quantity of the crop. Kate Lyall explained during the trip to North Dakota that more of the blueberries were considered premium rather than standard.

“More pollination means bigger blueberries, which are easier to pick,” Mark Askelson explained to a crowd at the Precision Ag Summit in Jamestown on Jan. 21.

Askelson is the executive director of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and associate dean of research in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota and was on a UND team working with Bee Innovative to test whether they would get the same kind of results in sunflowers as in blueberries. The project used two 20-acre sunflower fields to compare whether the field with pollination managed by BeeDar did better than a control field with normal management techniques.

The results are still early, but they are promising. The control field had 42% oil content. The experimental field had 45% oil content — but also some places with 49%.

“That’s a big increase — 3% translates into a lot of dollars,” Askelson said.

John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, which has been involved in the Bee Innovative research, said sunflowers are the only oil crop for which growers receive a premium for higher oil content. At 42% oil, the premium is 4%. At 45%, the premium is 10%. Using an example of a 2,000 pound/acre yield and $20 per hundredweight prices, producers could be looking at a $40 premium per acre for 45% oil content, compared to a $16 premium for 42% oil.

“When you take that across the whole field, that can really add up,” Sandbakken said.

The thought with the technology is that it could allow farmers to do more — produce more crops of better quality — with the same or similar inputs.

Delore Zimmerman, president of Praxis Group and an organizer of the Precision Ag Summit, pointed out to the crowd that 100 crops in the world are dependent on bees.

“We need to pay attention to this,” he said.

Doing more with less

Throughout the two-day Precision Ag Summit, speaker after speaker talked about different technologies, different research, different tools to do more with less. More automation. Fewer inputs. Less waste. More efficiency. Zimmerman said his main takeaway, though, was that for all the technologies available, implementation of new products has been slow on the farm. Farmers have worked through crop consultants and service providers to implement technologies more than taking them on themselves.

Technologies with the most return on investment seem the likeliest to catch on. Zimmerman said a presentation at the Summit on using drones to apply herbicides and pesticides to specific areas that need such treatments seemed likely to have an easily realized ROI. Similarly, the real-world applications for Bee Innovative’s use of technology to make pollination more efficient seem likely to return real results.

Bee Innovative came to North Dakota through a partnership with UND and a $59,113 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission. The UND Aerospace School provided an additional $10,000 for personnel and equipment.

The way Bee Innovative’s BeeDar works is that it can track the movement of bees as they pollinate a field. So, if part of the field isn’t being pollinated, bees can be moved in to service that portion.

In the 2019 test in Bismarck, Askelson said both fields had 128 bee hives. In the control, all of the hives were placed as per normal protocol. In the test, half of the hives were placed, and BeeDar monitored the pollination pattern.

Askelson showed the Precision Ag Summit crowd a map of the test field that ranged from green for “high” pollination activity to red for “low” pollination adequately, with yellow areas in between. Once the BeeDar identified that the southwest portion of the test field wasn’t being pollinated well enough, they had beekeepers move the other half of the hives to that portion of the field. After that, the BeeDar showed the majority of the field in green, with just a small triangle of yellow.

There are many things the researchers need to look at besides just the raw yield and quality data, including analyzing whether any weather differences could have affected the results. But Askelson said there is reason to be optimistic about the future of BeeDar.

“This is an early indication that there is some real potential here,” he said.

David Lyall, in an email, said the results look “very good” and confirmed Bee Innovative continues to work with UND to bring all the data together.

“In a couple of weeks, we will have a more comprehensive view of the data,” he said.

The future of precision pollination

Bee Innovative is planning more work with UND in North Dakota in 2020, as well as establishing a permanent link to America.

“We are looking to establish a U.S. company later in 2020 and North Dakota is a front-runner as we look at different locations,” Lyall said.

While the knowledge gained about the impact of pollination on oil content in sunflowers will be valuable to farmers in the Upper Midwest, Sandbakken said he thinks Bee Innovative’s work might be most valuable in the production of hybrid sunflower seed.

A normal sunflower field in North Dakota or South Dakota — the top sunflower producing states — doesn’t have to be pollinated by bees, though, as the Bee Innovative research shows, it can help quality, he said. However, seed production plots in California have to be pollinated. Right now, bees are placed to pollinate those plots using more of an educated guess as to the best spots, Sandbakken explained. The growers know about how many hives are needed for a given area. But if the growers implement BeeDar, they could better ensure that their fields are being pollinated, which would allow for more seed production and lower seed costs.

Additionally, Sandbakken said he believes the knowledge gained through the Bee Innovative research could help with the decline in bee numbers. Farmers who know their bottom line could improve with the addition of pollinators might be more likely to let beekeepers keep their bees near their fields, providing a food source for the bees.

“We both can come out a winner,” he said.