Biotech is working to save the bees, which are the main pollinators of many major fruit and nut crops — bees pollinate 70% of crops in the world and generate an estimated economic value of more than $183,000 million globally. With up to 30% loss of species per year, the catastrophe of domesticated honeybee hives in the US alone is calculated at an estimated $2 billion reduction.
The massive devastation in the bee population is threatening the almost $20 billion that bees contribute to US crop production annually. How can farmers adapt to a world of rapidly declining bee populations? What is biotech doing to offset the deterioration of bee populations?
Beekeepers are constrained by the reality of the Anthropocene: novel ecologies, shifting baselines, and the hybridity of honey bees themselves—part wild animal subject to environmental change; part industrial organism, embedded in circuits of migratory pollination.
It can be argued that there are many reasons that collectively contribute to honeybees’ disappearance:
- Decreasing crop diversity
- Invasive parasites
- Long cold winters
- Habitat loss / decline in bees’ diets
- Poor management
For a long time, one cause weighed more significantly than all the others together: the heavy commercial agriculture use of pesticides, a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which has had a lethal effect on bees. The problem was so severe even a decade ago that President Barack Obama unveiled the first-ever national strategy for improving the health of bees and other key pollinators.
Now there’s another, more insidious culprit: human-caused climate change. Climate change has become a new and formidable stressor for bees, potentially amplifying previously known issues. As UC Davis outlines, extreme rainfall can disrupt bees’ foraging patterns. Wildfires and floods may destroy bee habitat and food sources. Drought may also reduce available forage and discourage land managers from planting new areas for bees as water becomes less readily available. Studies have already shown that climate change is disrupting seasonal connections between bees and flowers, as flowers may produce less-nutritious pollen and nectar under extreme weather conditions.
Bee colonies experienced record losses in winter, 2022. No data is yet in as a result of the record-breaking 2023 winter cold and its affects on bees.
A Biotech Approach to Save the Bees
Beeflow is trying to change how the agricultural industry thinks about the role of bees in food production. The Argentina-based startup has developed a special nutrient-packed formula for bees which boosts their immune systems and makes them more robust in colder temperatures. Their feed is composed of plant-based molecules that enhances bees’ immune system and boosts their activity in stressful conditions, such as low temperatures, allowing them to work up to 7 times more flights in cold weather and double the pollen load.
Strong and healthy bees achieve high performance pollination.
Beeflow crafts amino-acid based supplements from floral nectar and plant hormones to help fortify bees’ immune systems. Beekeepers feed the bees the plant-based formula, which contains sugar, water, and proprietary ingredients, about once a week. Similar to Pavlov’s dog training experiment, Beeflow also trains bees to associate the scent of the crop they need to pollinate with a sugar syrup treat. This effectively creates a “flight GPS” for the bees to pollinate specific crops.
After bees are given the superfood, the team selects and monitors a group of flowers on a branch for 5 minutes and counts the number of bees that visit. This exercise is repeated at various locations on a farm. The company doesn’t have an automated way to measure a bee’s performance yet.
The company is part of the next-gen of sustainable agriculture. With strategic beehive placement that enhances attraction between bees and flowers, Beeflow creates and manages pollination programs for farmers, which increase crop yields by up to 60%. The company leverages scientific knowledge and proprietary technology to improve the impact of pollination in agriculture. Pollination is critical to crop success, as it sets the ceiling for crop yield and quality potential. Inefficient or lack of pollination can reduce crop yields, cause malformation and small-sized crops, contribute to fruit diseases, and, ultimately, increase food waste.
Deployed across 10,000 acres of farmland in the US, Mexico, Argentina, and Peru, Beeflow’s solutions have increased farm yield — compared to traditional farms — by 32% in blueberry, almond, and raspberry crops. Beeflow estimates that a 9-acre pilot project at a blueberry farm in Aurora, Oregon this winter increased yields by 25% and berry size by 22%.
“It’s the most promising technology that I’ve seen,” Lisa Wasko DeVetter, an associate professor at Washington State University who specializes in small fruit cultivation, told Bloomberg.
Beeflow helps farmers address crop pollination challenges with nature-based solutions to drive yield and quality. Pollination in low temperatures, attraction between bees and flowers: the plant-based organic molecules condition bees’ memories so that they seek to pollinate specific target crops that are, otherwise, unattractive to them. This substantially improves pollination of target crops.
In February, 2019, the company started testing the formula at a major California almond farmer. Almond farmers, who are planting more almond trees to keep up with surging demand for the nut, are especially struggling to get enough bees to pollinate their crops. Almond farmers generally rent between 2 and 2.5 beehives per acre for the pollination season, but costs have jumped from $50 per beehive to about $230, Viel noted. Almonds have a short pollination window of about two to three weeks. Colder temperatures can prevent bees from performing at their best during that time.
Through interactions with farmers, local communities, and other beekeeping experts, Beeflow tries to create a greater consciousness about the importance of bees in agriculture and food production. Their team combines business and scientific backgrounds and works to improve produce quality and reduce food waste while also creating new and better sources of income for farmers and beekeepers.
The impact is that growers produce more with less.
Beeflow has raised $13 million to date from investors, including SOSV, Ospraie Ag Science, and Grid Exponential, with plans to secure more funding to scale up operations. “The next one that is coming is avocado pollination,” previews Beeflow founder Matias Viel. “We think that with healthier bees and then with a stronger immune system, bees can work better and perform better.”
It plans to use the funds to build an office in Los Angeles and grow a team in the US. Beeflow recently closed a $3 million round of seed funding to expand. “Although this is a long journey, we are starting — and we think that this can add a lot of value to the agriculture industry,” Viel said.