Bees play a crucial role in food production, with a majority of crops producing fruit or seeds for humans depending, at least in part, on pollinators.
Yet bee populations are dwindling. In the UK alone, it is estimated that one third of British wild bees and hoverflies are in decline. Globally, approximately 35-40% of honeybees are lost each year.
Pesticides, pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss are all contributing to these falling numbers.
Sparked by the need to increase biodiversity and boost pollinator health, a growing number of initiatives and start-ups are driving innovations in the bee sector. FoodNavigator profiles three developments across Europe and Canada that aim to, in the long-term, ensure stable food supplies for the future.
Belgian start-up uses bees as drones
In Belgium, a start-up is tapping bees to help authorities and businesses integrate biodiversity into their activities.
According to co-founder Michael van Cutsem, bees – as one of the main pollinators – are “super important” to the agri-food system. “More than 70% of the fruit and vegetables that we eat are linked to pollination,” he told FoodNavigator at this year’s Seeds and Chips event in Milan. “They are also very important as an indicator of the environment.”
BeeOdiversity aims to generate added value for its clients’ products through increased biodiversity. For a dairy producer, this could mean improved quality of cows’ milk, or for an organic farmer, the start-up could help identify where pesticides may be used in the region.
“One of the tools we developed is called Beeomonitoring. It consists of monitoring bees’ environments,” said van Cutsem. To do this, the company partners with local beekeepers to use their pollinators as drones. “The bees collect samples of pollen or nectar across very large zones, bring back billions of samples in the beehive, and we collect these samples,” he explained.
The pollen samples can identify air and soil pollution. In the case that pollutants are present, the start-up is also able to measure whether levels are dangerous for both humans’ and the planet’s health.
Beeomonitoring can also test for pesticides, and more specifically, the origin of each pesticide.
Finally, the tool alerts BeeOdiversity if there is a lack of plant diversity at a specific period in the year. “This can impact the whole ecosystem and reduce pollination,” van Cutsem explained. The data enables the start-up to then advise stakeholders how best to boost plant diversity. “It’s good for the environment and good for farming. It’s a win-win for the whole community,” we were told.
BeeOdiversity is working across six countries in Europe, as well as the US, but hopes to expand. “We want to have as much data as possible to enable everybody to act and change the situation,” said van Cutsem.
Arla puts buzz back into farms
In the UK, Arla farmers have initiated a project aimed at creating ‘wild, natural habitats’ for bees on their properties. ‘Project Pollinate’ sees Arla’s farmer owners cultivate, seed, and farm their land to create an insect-friendly ecosystem.
The initiative asks that each farmer dedicate approximately 5,000m² - or the equivalent of around 184 average back gardens – to wildflower growth.
“Working with nature is front of mind for farmers on a daily basis,” said Arla farmer Fiona Dale, who has committed to undertaking the Project Pollinate trial. “When you join the dots across the intricate inter-dependencies of nature you realise we’ll all have to work together and a bit differently if we are to create real change, it’s exciting to think that a farming wildlife approach can play a real part in that.”
In Sweden, Arla dairy producers have launched the ‘Flowers for Bees’ project across 40 farms. In an effort to boost Sweden’s depleting flower numbers, which is threatening pollinator numbers, farmers are sowing crops known to protect bee varieties.
The aim is that blooming flowers will provide food for bumblebees and other species of wild bees, and ultimately ‘boost the ecosystem’ and contribute to sustainable dairy farming.
“Flowers for Bees is a great initiative. It is good for us to be able to spare half a hectare of land for something that contributes to a more sustainable society,” said northern Stockholm farmer Jakob Jurriaanse.
“We already have plenty of flowers on the farm, but this project benefits both bees and the ground…I have been sowing this special seed mix for three consecutive years, and they changed land every time because it also works as a good soil conditioner for other crops.”
Nectar AI saves the bees
Another initiative, this one based in Montreal in Canada, is working to ‘give bees a voice’ by monitoring their wellbeing inside the hive. Start-up Nectar aims to boost honeybee populations across the globe.
“Honeybees are dying. Every year we lose about 35-40% of our bees to pesticides, parasites, diseases, and climate change,” Marc-Andre Roberge, co-founder and beekeeper of start-up Nectar, told delegates at Seeds and Chips.
The solution to increasing honeybee hive numbers lies in beekeeping, he continued. “The industry responsible for taking care of one-third of our food system [due to the pollinating of fruits and vegetables] is the beekeeping industry.
“It is a $15bn industry that yes, produces honey, but mainly provides us with pollination services from 100 billion hives around the world.”
Nectar’s solution, an apiary management platform, is designed to improve the productivity of commercial beekeepers. Conventional practice requires beekeepers to physically visit every hive to check on their colony. Some commercial-scale beekeepers are responsible for up to 50,000 hives.
The start-up’s platform reduces time and effort by using sensors and artificial intelligence to monitor the status of the bees within the hive, and advise beekeepers how best to keep them healthy.
“The in-hive sensors capture different data points from the bees, including temperature, humidity, sound frequency, weight and geolocation,” Roberge explained. Nectar processes this raw data to help beekeepers check in on their queen bee, verify population growth, and identify if parasites or diseases are threatening the hive.
“Our solution provides proactive management for beekeepers by being able to remotely assess and keep track of what is going on, to better manage their teams and make sure they are treating their hives at the same time.
“For growers, [the solution offers] transparency and optimisation of their pollination supply chain, to make sure they are getting the best out of the bees they are renting,” he continued.
While the technology is primarily used by large-scale honey producers, Nectar’s solution can also serve smallholder farmers looking to diversify revenue streams.
Working across North America, Nectar has already helped beekeepers reduce operating costs and boost productivity to keep more hives alive. “So far, we have been able to go from a 35% [rate of loss] to 30%. Our goal is go all the way down to 10-15%, which should be the norm for honeybees across the world,” said Roberge.
Ultimately, Nectar sees its project as one that can help increase honeybee survival rate, and ensure efficient pollination services to food growers. “What this means for us is to [maintain] access to the food we currently have now.”