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Can precision pollination boost bee populations?

Article-Can precision pollination boost bee populations?

Adobe / Martin beehero-ai-food.jpg
Agtech firm BeeHero is using in-hive sensors and AI algorithms to produce data-driven insights that can help growers boost crop yields and food manufacturers add credence to ‘bee-friendly’ claims.

Bees are tiny insects that play an outsized part in the food chain. They are critical to food security, not because of their ability to produce honey, but because of their role as pollinators.

Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Coffee, cocoa, apples, berries, almonds, tomatoes, sunflowers, alfalfa, avocado, canola, and beans are among the crops that depend on the work of nature’s pollinators.

The problem is that the global bee population is declining as a result of factors such as climate change, monoculture farming, and the use of pesticides. The latest bee survey from the not-for-profit Bee Informed Partnership showed that between April 2022 and 2023 beekeepers in the US lost 48% of their managed bee colonies.

Eytan Schwartz, vice president of global strategy at Israeli precision pollination provider BeeHero, said that although the situation in Europe is less critical, the decline of bees is a global issue that is threatening nature’s ability to pollinate what humanity needs to feed growing populations.

“Since bees pollinate 75% of the crops we eat, we are talking about a major crisis – we can survive without the honey but we cannot survive without the crops,” he said.

Managing pollination

With nature no longer able to support the pollination needs of farmers as it did in the past, an entire industry has sprung up around managed pollination services.

“Beekeepers in the US produce honey but today that only accounts for 20% of their income. Most of their revenue comes from providing bees to farmers for pollination,” explained Schwartz, adding that the current price per box in the US is $200-250.

However, managed pollination is no panacea, and as bee numbers continue to fall, it is becoming increasingly unreliable as a strategy for safeguarding yields.

“With the weakening of the bee colony population all over the world, farmers are paying exorbitant amounts of money and receiving empty or half full boxes. Not only have they lost money on a product they have paid for, they are also losing money on future products because they will have no crops from a piece of land that isn’t pollinated,” said Schwartz.

This is where so-called precision pollination can help, he said.

Data streaming from orchard to dashboard

At the heart of BeeHero’s precision pollination solution is an IoT (Internet of Things) sensor device that measures various parameters that indicate hive health, strength, and efficiency. These are sound, temperature, heat, light, humidity, vibration, electro-magnetic field, and location. The data collected via these sensors is transmitted to “gateway” units, uploaded to the cloud and fed into models that use AI algorithms to translate them into actionable insights.

“If the bees are unable to self-regulate the temperature in the hive, or sense that a parasite has entered the hive or the queen is weakening, they will move, behave, and buzz differently, and the changes will be reflected in the parameters monitored by the sensors. We identify these patterns and model them,” explained Schwartz.

Drawing an analogy with medicine, he likened the technology to an MRI scan and the beekeeper to a doctor.

“The beekeeper knows how to solve the problems, he just doesn’t know they are happening without the sensor as he or she only inspects the hive every three to four weeks. Large beekeeping operations do not have the ability to know what is happening in real time in their colonies.”

These insights allow for real-time interventions in the hive that result in healthier bees and stronger colonies, said Schwartz.

BeeHero can also advise farmers and growers on each field’s specific pollination needs to provide the precise amount of bees required.

“We do this by analysing variables such as the size and shape of the field and the crop variety and density. We then locate the hives to maximise pollination,” said Schwartz.

Bee-friendly practices that are proven

As the ‘bee-friendly’ movement gains traction, the technology can also be used to underpin claims and certification schemes by providing supply chain transparency, according to BeeHero.

“Consumers are increasingly demanding that manufacturers source their products in a way that doesn’t harm bees. Certificates claiming that farmers aren’t using pesticides, are making water and a varied diet available etc only tell one part of the story. They show that the farmer created a bee-friendly environment, but they don’t actually prove that the bees are healthy,” said Schwartz.

BeeHero completes the picture by providing evidence of the effectiveness of bee-friendly practices through bee health metrics such as hive strength and mortality.

He said the industries most interested in this visibility are food, cosmetic and perfume manufacturing, which use honey, wax, and botanicals.

“Our ability to tell them whether an operation is bee-friendly is important to them as a lot of companies in these industries have committed to bee-friendly practices.”

He added that BeeHero is exploring opportunities for working in collaboration with bee-friendly certification schemes.