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Interview: Israeli startup helps US farmers boost crop yields (Includes interview)

Global bee populations are dying out and the impact this has on agriculture and food supply (as covered by Digital Journal). Various solutions have been proposed, from tackling bee colony disease to developing alternative robot-driven pollination. Many of these solutions that are too expensive or unproven.

Coming from a different approach, the startup BeeHero aims to help bees do what they do best by monitoring the health of the hive itself. The startup has partnered with three of the largest commercial beekeepers in the U.S. to put simple IoT sensors into beehives to monitor more than 25 different factors (humidity, Colony Collapse Disorder, no queen, and so on). This methodology can predict hive issues before colonies are destroyed.

To understand how this works in practice, Omer Davidi, co-founder and CEO of BeeHero spoke with Digital Journal

Digital Journal: What are the implications of bee colony collapse?

Omer Davidi: Many people think of bees in terms of honey, but one of the most important roles of bees in our planet is pollination. Bees are responsible for pollinating billions of plants every year including millions of agricultural crops. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is causing more than 40% of bee colonies to collapse every single year, and the quality of hives that do manage to survive is very low.

This leads to an insufficient number of pollinators to meet the demand of billions of plants. If plants can’t be pollinated, they are risk of dying out and that has major environmental implications for biodiversity. But the other major implication is the impact on global food supply. More than 70% of food crops depend on bee pollination, and without it, growers will lose a lot of their potential yield. As Albert Einstein said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” We are not there yet, but things are not very bright.

DJ: What’s causing the global decline in bees?

Davidi: There is no one reason that all researchers agree on, but it is due to a combination of several stressors. As agriculture became more intensive, pesticide use has dramatically increased. The process of pollination is a side effect of the working bees going out to forage. Bringing those chemicals into the colony to feed the queen and the next-generation affects the health of the hive. Another aspect modern agriculture is an over-dependence on monoculture, meaning tens to hundreds of thousands of acres of the same crop.

For the bees, this is not a diverse diet which affects their health. Because of globalization, we see specific diseases or mites moving from one place to another, affecting bees all over the world. Adding urbanization, pollution, climate change, etc makes the environment for bees much more difficult to survive in. Eventually, the colonies don’t collapse because of a random phenomenon, but because of a specific matter: Mites, queen problems, viral disease, bacterial disease, starvation, poisoning, etc.

DJ: What measures, in general, can be taken?

Davidi: Obviously bees still exist today, thanks in large part to commercial beekeepers who spend a lot of resources to handle those various stressors and take care of bees. Currently, commercial beekeepers visit their hives every three or four weeks on average, to physically inspect it. They are looking to get the first indications of stress or disorders that might make the colony collapse. And yet, this isn’t enough since we are still facing more than 40% mortality rate per year. When a problem is detected on time, the commercial beekeepers know how to treat it, and in most cases, it can be solved. The challenge is to find it on time.

DJ: What technological solutions can be implemented to protect bees?

Davidi: The last technology that really affected the beekeeping world is the invention of the motor vehicle (allowing for faster manual hive inspection), so it has obviously been some time since any innovation has happened in the industry. But today, technology is emerging that allows beekeepers to remotely monitor and understand what is happening in their hives. This allows commercial beekeepers to optimize their operations by treating problems before they occur. By providing better tools for the commercial beekeepers to work with, we can significantly improve the situation.

DJ: Which types of technologies is BeeHero developing?

Davidi: BeeHero develops AI sensors that live inside the bee colony itself. The sensors collect more than 25 key data points from humidity, temperature, no queen, etc. and BeeHero’s AI combines that data with environmental parameters to know exactly what happens inside the hives. Using machine learning algorithms, BeeHero can predict beehive disorders before they damages the colony and alerts the commercial beekeepers on time.

By working together with beekeepers, BeeHero managed to lower mortality rates, lower operational costs and dramatically improve the quality (and pollination performance) of the hives. BeeHero’s technology can not only predict disorder but measure the quality of pollination in the field. This enables the company to optimize the quality of pollination and increase crops yields by 10 to 60 percent.

DJ: Who are you working with to develop and to implement the technology?

Davidi: The R&D process started two years ago in Israel. We started with 10 hives in our backyard, and eventually grew to 1,400 hives later. We worked with commercial beekeepers in Israel that own 25% of the beekeeping market, including leading researchers that study bee behavior and machine learning.

After several proof of concept projects and experiments in Israel, BeeHero moved its headquarters to the U.S. in order to commercialize the technology. Today the company is working with 4 big commercial beekeepers, almonds growers, berry growers, seed producers, and research institute farmers in California. BeeHero is in the process of hive installation with a number of growers and soon will monitor 20,000 beehives in the US, housing more than one billion bees overall.

DJ: What has been the response to date from the agricultural sector?

Davidi: The beekeeping sector of agriculture has been left behind for many years. We get a ton of positive feedback and support from commercial beekeepers as well as from the farming community, who are looking to improve and optimize the quality of pollination. We have data that shows fields using our beehives yield more crops per acre than fields with traditional hives, but also drives more revenue per acre with lower pollination costs.

DJ: Why is your solution preferable to, say, other solutions like using micro-robots as pollinators?

Davidi: There are no commercial artificial pollination solutions today that can viably replace bees. In term of replacing bees, you have several challenges. First of all, there is a need to extract the pollen and store it, a very delicate material, and bring it the female part of the flower efficiently. Adding to this the time limit for pollinating every flower and the short period of the blooming season, 10 days to several weeks, makes it very expensive.

By increasing the price of pollinating one flower by fractions of a cent, it becomes irrelevant. Not to mention ownerships maintenance and storage of those robots. A strong colony of bees can pollinate more than 3 million flowers a day. This is the result of millions of years of evolution and we aren’t going to simply replace that experience. Bees themselves are natural born pollinators, and the only way we’re going to help farmers, improve the food supply, and protect our biodiversity is to help the bees do what they do best.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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