I sat down with Dr. James Wilkes, computer science professor at Appalachian State University, to discuss his experience in beekeeping and the unique combination his education plays in the field.
Wilkes’ first experience with beekeeping began when a package arrived from Sears and Roebuck, ordered from the catalog found on many American coffee tables throughout the last 100 years. This particular package, however, did not contain the furniture or firearms that were popular, but an active hive of honey bees.
Wilkes’ father maintained the hives for several years, eventually setting the hobby aside. Wilkes was interested in the process, but did not return to the hobby until years later when he and his family settled into farm life.
While some may see computer science and agriculture as two opposing forces, Wilkes blends the two with an extensive web and social media presence for Faith Mountain Farms, the family business. Beekeeping arose as a natural extension of their agricultural and handcrafted efforts by providing pollinators for crops, honey for baking, and byproducts for crafting. A small hobby setup quickly grew to multi-site production of Basswood honey made possible by close monitoring and timing of hive maintenance.
Wilkes found that the variation between sites needed documentation to catch peak blooms, though few applications to document hive health existed at the time. Microsoft Excel provided a temporary solution to the problem, though Wilkes quickly realized that beekeepers needed a more user-friendly application rather than building their own file keeping systems.
Enter HiveTracks, a cloud-based application created to collect and store as much bee data as any professional or amateur beekeeper might need.
For those who use it, HiveTracks provides the ability to log all work done within a colony such as mite prevention, honey collection, queen health, time since last inspection and many more. Wilkes offers multiple subscription versions to cater to all types of keepers from hobby hives to industrial-scale farmers. Subscribers can opt in to sharing certain forms of data gathered by the app, which Wilkes can then use to provide a macro-scale view of regional and national beekeeping industries.
In addition to his work with HiveTracks, Wilkes shared his plans for a new project currently under development.
“When I’m in a farmer’s market I have trust with a customer that they believe what I say, and they can question me all day long until they get convinced, right? I’ll give them enough information ‘till they’re convinced,” said Wilkes. “How do we capture that trust and export it? How do we get that farmer’s market trust outside, beyond, further down the supply chain? And, so to me that’s going to be data driven.”
Wilkes is currently building a new way for consumers to relate to a product dominated largely by large-scale producers that focus on separating the honey from the situation it came from. It’s an open secret within the honey industry that adulteration of pure honey is common and often harmful, as seen in a 2020 study by Fakhleai et al. who documented that ingredients added after initial purchase of honey from small producers can cause obesity, liver and heart problems, and a host of other illnesses.
Wilkes’ solution is to connect consumers directly with those who care for the bees in the first place. Additional work on HiveTracks is expected to build a new supply chain for honey that small-scale producers can join in order to export their honey directly to other markets. In addition to knowledge of the maker, honey could be analyzed to provide exact details of the contents in the jar.
“It would have enough information that you as the consumer would go ‘Wow, that’s a lot of information that backs up that honey,’” said Wilkes. “And if I have a choice between this honey that has all that information and this honey that has less information, then some consumers are going to choose that one with more information. It’s no different than any other kind of product differentiation, but in the honey space, there’s very little of that.”
The potential for this new method of supply could potentially scale to other industries as well, Wilkes said. Many foodstuffs struggle with fair compensation of producers and comprehensive knowledge of production, such as tea, coffee, cocoa and others. The elimination of slavery and child labor from the market is still an international effort, and the ability to know exactly where your product came from may help to prevent these ills.
Wilkes’ work has taken him across the world to showcase the benefits HiveTracks has to offer. From encouraging a growing female beekeeper demographic in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan to building infrastructure for manuka honey authentication in New Zealand, Dr. Wilkes has found 21st century methods to improve our relationship with one of man’s earliest domesticated animals.