Cruising through California’s San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys in late February, you will see orchards lined with almond tree buds that have burst into lush pink and white blooms in preparation for pollination. Honey bees buzz from tree to tree foraging for nectar, while pollinating the sea of almond blossoms along the way. Come September, almonds are vigorously shaken off of the trees by farm machines that, coincidentally, are colored like the black and yellow of bees.
In 2018 alone, California produced 2.45 billion pounds of almonds. This is a 7.9 percent increase from the previous year’s crop, a testament to farmers who fiercely battled the freezing weather during almond bloom and carefully managed their crop to harvest. However, there is one hero in the story that may have been overlooked: bees.
Approximately 1.6 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California’s almond orchards at the beginning of the bloom period to pollinate the crop. Beyond almonds, close to 100 crops also rely to some degree on bee pollination services. In fact, one in every three bites a person eats is from a bee-pollinated nut or flower.
DECIMATION OF BEE COLONIES CONTINUE
Unfortunately, our overlooked heroes are facing a dilemma. They are dying.
Since the late 1990s, beekeepers around the world have observed the mysterious and sudden disappearance of bees, and noted unusually high rates of decline in honeybee colonies. It got even worse in 2006 when commercial beekeepers watched as the rates of dead bees almost tripled due to a condition called colony collapse disorder.
“When beekeepers brought large numbers of colonies to California for almonds, the bees looked good, the mite levels were under control but yet they lost the colonies. They would go back weeks later and they would find the queen and a double handful of bees,” said Dr. Steve Sheppard of Washington State University, during a WG Lunch & Learn webinar about colony collapse disorder.
For much of the past 10 years, beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher—a figure that is substantially more than what is considered normal or sustainable.
The decline of colony numbers over time has been attributed to several challenges. This includes habitat fragmentation, parasites, limited genetic diversity, viruses, migratory stresses, bacteria, lack of forage diversity and quantity, poor bee nutrition, exposure to pesticides and climate change.
THE RISE OF ROBOT BEES…KIND OF
A world without bees may still seem far-fetched, but the continuous and steady decline of these pollinators is compelling researchers, technologists and farmers to come up with a solution sooner rather than later.
Researchers across the world are taking matters into their own hands and inventing robotic pollinators. For example, Eijiro Miyako, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, has designed an insect-sized drone capable of artificial pollination. This prototype is coated with a patch of horse hair bristles and an ionic liquid gel so it can collect and transfer pollen from one plant to another.
Additionally, researchers at Harvard University developed RoboBees, autonomous flying microrobots that are equipped with smart sensors and control electronics that can interpret and respond to their environment, mimicking the function of the eyes and antennae of bees. Corporations are also joining the cause. Just last March, retail giant Walmart filed a patent for autonomous robotic bees, or pollination drones, that could potentially pollinate crops just like real bees.
Though artificial pollination is possible, it is a tedious and time-consuming process. Not to mention it can be incredibly costly.
AGTECH STARTUPS LAUNCHING TECH TO SAVE BEES
Many technologists and researchers are, instead, turning to innovation that protects our natural pollinators rather than developing new autonomous pollination technology.
ApisProtect—an Irish company that recently opened its first U.S. office at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (the Center) in Salinas, Calif.—uses the Internet of Things (IoT) to help beekeepers manage colonies more effectively.
“The key value that ApisProtect provides is the processed data—a high level overview of each apiary with a breakdown of which hives are doing well, which ones are likely to experience problems and which hives are currently in need of immediate attention,” said Fiona Edwards Murphy Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of ApisProtect. “This is what allows the beekeepers quickly understand their hives and rapidly respond.”
ApisProtect places the power of advanced sensors and machine learning technology into the hive to deliver a 24/7 early warning system so beekeepers can give at-risk hives immediate attention and improve bee health. With this technology, beekeepers no longer need to rely solely on periodic, manual hive checks that can allow disease, pests and other issues to deteriorate hive health beyond rescue. They are now able to immediately obtain important information when the hive is difficult to inspect (i.e., during the night, poor weather conditions, hive is at a far distance) and be positioned to make more effective decisions.
“The issue with periodic checks is that beekeepers want to monitor hives with the minimum amount of disturbance to the colony. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems with hives being missed before they are too late to resolve. You can have two hives next to each other and one will be fine, while the other has severe problems. Our technology will help beekeepers use their time more efficiently and focus on managing the health of the hives at the right time,” added Dr Edwards Murphy.
The agtech startup is taking bee health one step further by partnering with the National Agricultural Genotyping Center (NAGC) to analyze hive health in the United States, testing for pathogens including: Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, Black Queen Cell Virus, Deformed Wing Virus, Slow Bee Paralysis Virus and American Foulbrood Bacteria. ApisProtect has installed their ApisMonitor units in 200 hives worldwide and are now monitoring the health of ten million honey bees across 100,000 acres.
“The economic impact we are looking for will provide cost savings for pollination services, improve honey production and reduce colony loss for beekeepers worldwide,” said Andrew Wood, chair and co-founder of ApisProtect.
In addition to IoT, encrypted GPS data is now being used to keep pollinators safe at home. The Bee Corp, one of the newest startups housed in the Center, launched a security system for beekeepers.
“We started The Bee Corp to leverage data analytics and sensing technology to help commercial growers and beekeepers ensure effective pollination,” said Ellie Symes, CEO of The Bee Corp. “Bee health is important, as beehives need to be strong enough to pollinate one-third of the food grown in the United States.”
When commercial beekeepers migrate their hives around the nation to provide pollination services to farmers throughout the year, those hives sometimes get stolen. In fact, more than 1,700 hives were stolen in California alone during the 2016 almond pollination season.
The Bee Corp’s QGPS Hive Theft Tracking System provides beekeepers with an instant alert when unauthorized hive movement is detected. The technology has the ability to automatically notify local authorities to dispatch a patrol to the location of the hive, and later, generate a report that can be used to prosecute the thieves.
The Bee Corp most recently turned its attention to questions surrounding pollination and introduced Verifli, the world’s first digital bee grading solution. Powered by infrared technology, Verifli allows growers to grade bees 25 times faster than manual inspections; easily measure hive strength without disrupting bees; evaluate pollination reports on their phone; and translate data to ensure accurate pricing based on hive strength.
“Our company is revolutionizing this important input by using infrared technology to inspect the strength of the beehive. In the next five to 10 years this will help growers optimize pollination by ensuring the health and effectiveness of beehives used in crop production,” said Symes.
To support startups that are taking a proactive approach to save natural pollinators, the Center is helping move their technology forward through groundbreaking events. In early April, the Center will host an “All About Bees” AgTechx event where innovators, growers and researchers will come together to discuss what immediate steps need to occur to preserve honey bees. This includes changes across farming operations, possible innovations yet to be developed and bringing current bee-related technologies from development to market.