Humans perform better when they take vitamins and eat, so why would the situation be any different for other animals, like bees?
Argentinian startup BeeFlow is helping bees improve their pollination power while also teaching them to pollinate specific crops, including almonds, blueberries, kiwis and apples.
The startup recently raised $3 million in seed funding round from Ospraie Ag Sciences, the new venture capital arm of Ospraie Management, a large agriculture commodities hedge fund led by former Tiger Management managing director, Dwight Anderson.
Launched in 2016, BeeFlow is the brainchild of two researchers in bee health and crop pollination in Argentina. The company entered the US market in late 2017 via IndieBio’s four-month biotech acceleration program in San Francisco. It has picked up partnerships with strawberry giant Driscoll’s and almond powerhouse Harris Woolf along the way, and it is currently running field trials for its technology in Argentina.
One of BeeFlow’s technologies enhances the bees’ immune system and performance to assist in cold weather pollination. Field trials in California’s Central Valley showed a seven-fold increase in bee activity in temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Its other technology trains bees to pollinate specific crops, which is key for low-nectar flowers like blueberry flowers that have a hard time holding bees’ attention.
“Bees don’t like blueberries because they don’t have a lot of nectar in the flower,” Beeflow CEO Matías Viel told AFN. “A farmer in Oregon rented almost 500 beehives to pollinate 100 acres of blueberries, and the bees ended up going to the surrounding forest, which is a paradise for bees. It also happens in Florida when the orange trees are blooming.”
To lure bees to their intended target, BeeFlow feeds them organic molecule compounds that replicates the chemical composition of the less-tempting flower in the hive. Once outside, the bees remember that specific odor and seek it out.
BeeFlow recruited Argentinean researcher Walter Farina, who has more than two decades of experiences studying bees’ brains, neurons, and communication systems, to aid in the development of its technology.
BeeFlow’s technology isn’t packaged as a product on the shelf that beekeepers can integrate into their current management plans, however; it is offered as pollination-as-a-service.
“Farmers have managed pollination in the same way for decades, having a beekeeper place the hives in the field and waiting until bloom is over to take the bees away,” Viel explained. “Beekeepers are interested in honey production, which is completely different from pollination. We own our own bees and our own hives, and we use science to optimize pollination.”
Pollination mindset shift
Viel doesn’t rule out offering an off-the-shelf solution down the road, but his reason for pursuing a service-based platform is rooted in his desire to change the way farmers think about pollinators.
“No one has paid much attention to pollination, and we are trying to demonstrate to farmers that pollination can be a solution to achieve the demand for food that the world will have in the next few years,” he says.
What often happens, however, is that farmers rent bees and turn them loose in their fields, without monitoring the pollination process. And then they also spray pesticides during pollination, which kills many of the bees.
“We want to change farmers’ mindset to pay more attention to bees that are flying on their field to overcome the bee mortality rate problem,” Viel explains, adding, “We are approaching the bee problem by trying to change farmers’ mindset that pollination is much more important. You can increase your yields by even 20%, which is a lot of money.”
BeeFlow is among a small group of startups tackling pollination in the farming sector. ApisProtect is another. The company tracks and analyzes hive data like temperature, humidity, CO2, sound, and movement to alert beekeepers to potential hive health issues. Similarly, The Bee Corp monitors conditions inside commercial beehives and offers decision support software.
Dropcopter, meanwhile, is using drone technology to enhance pollination precision of orchard crops with an automated program that gives tired bees a break.
And Computer technology giant Oracle has partnered with the World Bee Project in the UK to monitor honey bee populations using its cloud technology platform. Starting in the UK, the initiative, dubbed The World Bee Project Hive Network, will use sensing technology to measure conditions in beehives to try and determine the reason for the mass decline in honey bee populations globally.