Robot bees? Edete develops ‘safety net for food security’ in face of pollinator decline

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

With the food system relying on declining pollinator populations, Edete says a technological solution will be needed ©GettyImages-Sebastian Adrover Camps
With the food system relying on declining pollinator populations, Edete says a technological solution will be needed ©GettyImages-Sebastian Adrover Camps

Related tags pollinators Bees Food tech Ag-tech

The food sector relies on pollinators – but populations are in decline. Israeli start-up Edete Precision Technologies has developed a mechanized artificial pollination system. “Edete's artificial pollination solution creates a safety net for the world's food security,” we were told.

World-wide, pollinator populations are shrinking. In the US, for instance, beekeepers have lost ~30% of their colonies every year since 2006, with total annual losses sometimes reaching as high as 42%, according to Bee Informed Partnership.

Wild and managed pollinators face numerous stressors. Honey bees, other managed pollinator species such as bumble bees and orchard bees, and wild bees suffer from exposure to parasites and pesticides. They are also impacted by loss of floral abundance and diversity due to increased land-use, according to Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research. Habitat destruction limits nesting sites for wild pollinators, the Center warns.

This is a potentially a loaded gun for the food sector. About 75% of the world’s crops rely on insect pollination for yield and quality. Without an alternative pollination solution to reduce the dependency on honeybees in the coming years, food prices might climb sharply, and supply might not meet the growing demand.

“Today, every third bite of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, and mainly on honeybees. Honeybees, as well as other insects, are declining at an alarming rate and even disappearing altogether. This is putting our food supply and food diversity under great stress,”​ Keren Mimran, co-founder and VP of business development at Edete explained.

The Israeli start-up has developed a solution: a mechanical pollen harvesting and pollination system.

“Edete's artificial pollination solution creates a safety net for the world's food security,” Mimran told FoodNavigator.

“We sincerely hope that pollinators will continue to perform their evolutionary process and developed interaction with plants - and will continue to storm the earth. However, there's no doubt that due to the continuous decline in pollinators’ numbers there will be no other solution but relying on technology.”

So… Robo-bee?

Operation of Edete's artificial pollination system in Israel at night
Operation of Edete's artificial pollination system in Israel at night ©Edete

Edete’s system is based on the mechanical collection of flowers and extracting pure pollen out of them. The company’s proprietary method enables good germinability rates to be maintained for pollen stored for over one year.

The pollen is applied using the Edete’s unique robotic pollination system, which utilises a combination of technologies to disperse an optimal dosage of pollen on the target flowers to achieve effective pollination. The application units can work during day or night and independent of ambient temperature, the company noted.

Edete has successfully completed field trials in almond orchards in Israel. They showed ‘substantially increased’ yield. This is an important point. The growing population means that the agricultural sector will have to produce more food, preferably without expanding the amount of cultivated land. Increasing productivity will be central to achieving this.

Productivity also means that the solution is financially appealing for farmers. Edete's business model is based on supplying pollination services, like current contracting of beehives, the price of which continues to rise. Growers spend over $400 million per season on beehive pollination services.

The company’s artificial pollination as a service (APaS) is expected to be price competitive with current pollination alternatives. But it offers a number of advantages, according to the start-up, including an estimated increase of 10%-20% in yields and ‘much less volatility’ from one growing season to the next.

“Edete's artificial pollination as a service (APaS) can replace bee pollination or be used as a supplement to bees while substantially reducing the stocking of beehives per acre, at costs that are similar to bee pollination. While bee pollination depends on weather conditions and does not guarantee yield, Edete's APaS can secure and increase the agricultural yield, hence increase profitability,”​ Mimran explained.

Larger commercial scale testing of Edete's new system will now continue in Israel and Australia.

Freeing bees from the ‘monoculture pollinating slavery’

GettyImages-Andreas Hauslbetz-Bees
Edete wants its solution to create win-wins for growers and bees ©GettyImages-Andreas Hauslbetz

Edete’s APaS will be competing directly with commercial beekeepers who sell the pollination services of their bees to agricultural producers.

At first, this doesn’t sound so good for the bees. When bees are already in decline, isn’t there a concern that by competing with ‘contracted hives’ Edete could actually contribute further to the pressure placed on populations?

Mimran rejects this concern outright.

“APaS can actually create a win-win situation for all,”​ the ag-tech innovator insists.

“Modern intensive agricultural monocultures are nutritional deserts for bees. Contracting bee hives means that bees are transported several thousand miles annually to pollinate different crops across the country. Transportation has been shown to put bees under pressure. Moreover, one of the reasons for the decline of bees is the use of pesticides and herbicides by growers that weakens the bee's immune system making bees more vulnerable to parasites and diseases.

“Edete's APaS can help to prevent some of these threats; reducing the need for bees transportation and their exposure to pesticides and herbicides. We help bees to be placed more in natural habitats rather than in vast monocultures, freeing the bees from monoculture pollinating slavery and allowing beekeepers to place bees at optimal forage areas and getting stronger colonies. APaS has been successfully increasing yields as bee supplement, so not all bee contracting is going to be replaced.”

If farmers’ reliance on pollinators is reduced, could this result in a shift to greater usage of pesticides and other chemicals? Mimran downplays this possibility also.

“There are more reasons for farmers to restrict their own use of chemicals beyond reasons that pertain to pollination. A major consideration for this restriction is the risk that the use of chemicals will harm the health of the consumers, and this is why chemical use by farmers is restricted by government regulation in most places over the world.”

What next? Cash for expansion 

Edete is now turning its attention to the US$7 billion global almond market.

With 80% of almond cultivation taking place in the US, the company plans to begin a pilot program in 2022 in California, the world’s largest almond growing region.

Since its establishment in 2016, Edete has raised around $4.8 million in pre-seed and seed funding, including $1 million from the Israel Innovation Authority. The company intends to raise additional funds in a Series A round during 2020, to support its growth plans and entry into the US market.

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