Baby plants aren’t delivered by stork; they fly in on the hairy little legs of bees.
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Several upstart companies are offering pollination as a service, deploying boxes of bees on-prem to help farmers increase crop yields. One of them is called BeeFlow, which develops bioengineered food for bees. The company’s website says its products “can enhance their immune system and teach them to pollinate specific targeted crops.“ It claims to deliver between 20 and 90 percent gains in crop yields. BeeFlow has raised $450,000 to date, according to Crunchbase data.
There are other companies and organizations facilitating connections between farmers and beekeepers.
Based in Hamburg, Germany, BEEsharing is a pollination brokerage network. It’s a multi-sided marketplace, connecting farmers to beekeepers and beekeepers to vendors in the market for honey, beeswax, and pollen. In turn, BEEsharing handles the consultation and logistics of moving hives and resulting commodity goods, according to a brief profile of the company in Bee Culture, “the magazine of American beekeeping.”
Here’s another German company, this one based in Munich: NearBees is an online marketplace for local honey producers to sell their sweet stuff online. An interactive map shows all the local independent beekeepers using the platform, alongside pictures, quality descriptions, and purchase links for their honey. In October 2017, NearBees raised an undisclosed sum of venture funding from BonVenture.
The colony of companies in the industry is bigger than bees-as-a-service. Raw honey isn’t the only resource that gets extracted from hives. There’s all the data, too.
Startups in the bee-related data business tend to specialize in either micro, hive-scale monitoring, or much broader analysis of how bees interact with the land (and all the plants growing from it).
Let’s start small. For the price of lumber, some wire, and all the requisite fasteners, you could build your own beehive. You can get live bees delivered by mail and put them to work. But apart from occasional visual inspections and basic maintenance, it can be tough to tell how a hive is doing at all times.
Enter the hive-sensing startups. Colorado-based OS Beehives makes the BuzzBox, a network-connected remote sensor which uses machine learning to analyze hive health in response to different factors like temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. Its mobile app connects hobbyist beekeepers to their hives, as well as to other beekeepers using OS Beehives to track colonies of their own. Apiarists can share snapshots of their hives (including pictures, audio recordings, and ambient sensor data) with the community.
OS Beehives, as the name might suggest, is a big bee-liever in open source hardware and software, so in addition to the $199 full-service BuzzBox, the basic circuit board designs, firmware, and data server code—as well as CNC files for cutting out beehive parts from wood—are available on a pay-what-you-want pricing model for the more DIY types.
Other companies in the hive sensor business include:
- The Bee Corp, based in Indianapolis, uses infrared cameras and large data to measure the size and strength of a colony. On its website, the company explains that its sensors reduce uncertainty in the pollination business. By measuring the temperature of a hive and combining that data with weather and seasonal information, The Bee Corp’s Verifli platform grades bee colony health without needing to open the hives and perform a manual check. This grading system lets beekeepers and growers more accurately price pollination services based on the strength of hives. The company received a $225,000 SBIR grant and reportedly raised $50,000 in a seed round from Elevate Ventures. The Bee Corp has received over $100,000 in other non-dilutive grant funding from various organizations. A June 2017 SEC filing indicated the company had raised $360,000 of a targeted $450,000 in a likely Series A round, as reported by Xconomy.
- ApisProtect, which has raised $1.8 million in known seed funding to date. It’s based in Cork, Ireland. According to an interview with ApisProtect founder Fiona Murphy in Sifted, its software platform integrates with Slack to help teams of beekeepers stay up to date on the state of their hives.
- BeeHero is in a similar business. It uses sensors inside hives to track and optimize pollination. Their stated goal is to build the largest database of bees and pollination. BeeHero has raised at least $1 million in venture backing to date.
- Bee Smart Technologies (also known as Pollenity), a Bulgarian startup which builds in-hive IoT sensors and under-hive scales to track colony health and honey production. The company has raised nearly $600,000 in combined USD and EUR-denominated venture funding, according to Crunchbase.
Just as the strength of bees is in numbers, so too is the big bee data business.
Bees As A Biotech Partner
The backend of a bee is a biochemical wonder. Honey is the only food that never spoils; it’s sugary and slightly acidic, which discourages bacterial growth. Applied to skin, the salt in our sweat catalyzes a reaction between glucose in the concentrated flower nectar and a bee-born enzyme, glucose oxidase, resulting in a slow, steady release of disinfecting hydrogen peroxide.
People have used honey in emergency first aid applications since ancient times, but some companies are figuring out how to deliver honey’s healing properties in more application-specific ways. Based in Memphis, Tennessee, SweetBio constructs collagen scaffolds suffused with manuka honey to help with the healing process following oral surgery. Made from the nectar of manuka trees (commonly known as tea trees), this rare (and expensive) honey contains unique compounds that possess antimicrobial properties.
Bees As A Bellwether
One thing to remember about Silicon Valley: before it became a string of train-town suburbs running down the back of the Bay, it was mostly orchards. Which is to say that the labor of bees backed the prosperity of the area long before Fairchild started stamping out semiconductors in San Jose.
By their nature, bees are entrepreneurial, and in order to ensure the partnership between people and bees remains strong, we’ll have to become closer collaborators. Climate change, the preponderance of pesticides and microbiome-inhibiting herbicides like glyphosate, and mites with menacing names like Varroa destructor are all threats to our yellow stripey pollinator friends.
Here too, startup founders are stepping up to help (and hopefully make a little money in the process). Swiss startup Vatorex’s system applies well-controlled heat to hives infested with Varroa mites, baking the bloodsuckers alive without hurting the bees. The company now operates in eight countries with seven employees, according to recent coverage of the startup in regional Swiss paper Winterthurer Zeitung.
Another example: Miami-based Healthy Bees is in the business of apian nutrition. The company’s website says its patties and powders contain trace vitamins and minerals essential to bee health. Why is this needed now? The company says, “20 years ago, bees had access to more forage. Today, human expansion, overuse of herbicides, and increased monocultures have left little remaining for our bees.”
Up and down the agricultural stack, from massive orchards to backyard hives, bees create value. The unique partnership between us and the bees is such that in order to save them, we’ll probably have to invest more in them too.
Image Credit: Bee photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann; honey picture by Danika Perkinson, both via Unsplash.