This post was originally written in December 2016, but has been completely revised and simplified for December 2018.
I’ve been fooling around with a Flir One For Android thermal imaging device for about two years, going into my third winter now. It’s kind of neat, but it’s not an essential tool for backyard beekeepers, certainly not for beekeepers on a budget. Whenever I use it on a cold winter’s days, it usually dies in about 5 minutes, even when it’s fully charged. So whatever photos or videos I take with it, I have to move quick.
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. I just don’t have time for that. It was way too fiddly. I settled on the plug-it-in-and-go approach and the results have not been spectacular, and 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 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. 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 (that’s what I paid for it in Canada in 2016). 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.
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.
February 21st, 2019: 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.