August 2019 Introduction: I fooled around with a Flir One For Android thermal imaging device for about three years. It’s not a device for beekeepers on a budget. I doubt I would have picked it up myself if I didn’t get it as a birthday gift. I wouldn’t call it essential for the kind of backyard beekeeping that I do, but I have to confess that I got in the habit of using it often in the winter, even though the battery doesn’t last much longer than five minutes on a typical freezing Newfoundland winter day. It doesn’t give me the most accurate thermal images of bees, but it provides an indication of whether or not the cluster is big or small, dead or alive, or dying. I don’t have to tap on the side of the hive and listen to the roar of the bees to see how they are doing. I don’t have to listen carefully with my stethoscope. Typically, I plug the device into my Android phone, turn everything on and then run out to my hives and take as many photos as I can as quickly as possible before the battery dies. I don’t think it ever lasts more than 10 minutes. I have my doubts that the built-in battery was designed for cold places like Newfoundland. Here are some sample images and video to give an idea of how it played it out for me.
An example of using the Flir One in the dark:
I know people who get much better results with their Flir One than I do, possibly because they’ve taken the time to work through and uncover the best settings and are able to manipulate the images with software afterwards to give them something useful. I tried digging into the finer settings of the Flir One, using various apps and software, and never had consistent results. It was way too fiddly and time-consuming trying to uncover the perfect settings and the best way to shoot with it. I settled on the plug-it-in-and-go approach and the results have not been spectacular, though really not much better than what got from poking around with the software for too many hours.
The images show me that, yes, heat is coming from inside the hives, but I’ve never been able to get a precise reading that tells me anything I can’t get from listening to the bees through a cheap stethoscope. I have to listen carefully to figure out what’s going on through a stethoscope, mostly listening to the distant sounds that it picks up, but it works. I can go right around a hive with the stethoscope and tell where the cluster is the most dense. I prefer the ease of just whipping out my phone and having at it, but the $7 stethoscope method isn’t the end of the world. Getting down on my knees and sticking my ear to the side of the hive works too.
I can see the Flir One coming in handy for when something goes really wrong. I once had a winter cluster split in two because I stupidly left a frame of foundation (with no comb on it) in a top box full of honey — and that move pretty much killed the colony. The bees moved up thinking they had a full deep of honey to keep them alive, but they only had about three frames they were able to access. They wouldn’t cross the barrier created by the frame of blank foundation. If I had a thermal imaging camera in that situation, I may have been able to dig into the hive and fix it. So, yes, in some situations, it could prevent the death of a colony, which for many people would be worth the $400+ price tag (the 2016 retail price of the Flir One in Canada). But more attentive beekeeping in the first place could prevent those situations too.
I didn’t think the Flir One would be of any use once I wrapped my hives in black roofing felt for the winter, but I noticed the heat signature seems to bleed through in places where the wrap is tightly pressed against the hive. I’m pretty sure the Flir One would be useless on hives with thick wraps such as a “Bee Cozy.” The Flir One also does a better job at reading temperatures off non-shiny surfaces, which means hives that aren’t painted will likely give off a more precise reading than hives that are painted. So painted hives might be a mark against its effectiveness.
I’ll probably continue to use the Flir One out of curiosity, but for most circumstances that I’m likely to deal with in the winter, I’m not sure the Flir One is really necessary or worth the expense.
Some details on how I poked around and experimented with the fine settings of the Flir One apps and software, and then gave up on it, can be found in the comments.
I know it doesn’t look like I’m giving off a favourable opinion about the Flir One. I still view it as another expensive gadget that most backyard beekeepers don’t need to waste their money on. But since I actually have one, I use it often to quickly check to see if my bees are still alive. The battery still dies after five minutes whenever it’s freezing cold; the images are useless once a hive has been in the sun; and it can be a challenge to get a readable image off a wrapped hive, but I find myself using the Flir One whenever I’m concerned about the bees.