Pollination is one of the most significant biological processes in the world’s ecosystems, with about 75% of the world’s crops relying at least in part on animal pollination, according to the World Bee Project. The transfer of pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma, pollination allows for fertilization to occur, resulting in seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Pollination often occurs either via wind for grasses and cereals, or by animals—primarily honey bees.
However, global bee populations have been declining over the last few decades. Bee populations often face colony collapse disorder, which occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen and a few nurse bees to care for the queen and the remaining immature bees. This disorder, on top of excessive use of agricultural chemicals and climate change, has significantly reduced bee populations, yet agricultural production must grow by 70% by 2050 to avoid food scarcity.
“The disappearance of the bees is due to many different factors that you cannot control,” says Keren Mimran, founder and VP of business development and marketing at Edete, an artificial pollination company. “They say that climate change is affecting the bees, pesticides and herbicides, the loss of natural habitat.”
According to Mimran, even if the bee population was not disappearing at all, bee populations have natural constraints that prevent them from working. The temperature must be over 15 degrees Celsius, and they need direct sunlight. Additionally, plant cross-pollination, when one plant pollinates a plant of another variety, must be synchronized for higher yields.
“I believe that we’re not going to get much better with the insect population. It’s not only bees, it’s all of the insects in nature. We’re destroying them,” Mimran tells NoCamels. “But as long as we need to get our vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables, we’re going to have a problem. So there probably will be more and more efficient pollination solutions.”
Across Israel, there are over 500 beekeepers caring for over 120,000 hives. Israel is home to more than 1,100 species of bees, and Israelis on average consume 600 grams of honey per person during the whole year.
In order to protect Israel’s diverse and extensive bee population, Israeli companies are working to protect crop yield rates while helping bee populations, from artificial pollination to beehive trackers to robot beekeepers.
Here are seven Israeli startups working to protect bees and agriculture for a more sustainable future.
Edete Precision Technologies for Agriculture is Israel’s only artificial pollination service that reduces the deficiencies of insect-based pollination. Edete has a two-step process of pollen harvesting and distribution to cut bees out of the equation. Edete created a way to produce pollen a year in advance without losing its viability and germinability, ensuring better crop yields.
“What we can offer the growers is to eliminate completely problems of cross-pollination synchronization,” Mimran says. “Growers need to plant more than one cultivar in their orchard in order to get the cross-pollination. So if we can collect the pollen and bring it to growers a year after, there are no problems with this synchronization.”
In order to carry out artificial pollination, Edete delicately separates pollen from flowers that they harvest and store this pollen for over a year, ensuring fertilization. This dry pollen is then put into a dispersal machine that shoots the pollen into the tree canopy. The pollen is charged with an electrostatic charge to help keep the pollen separated from each other. Using LIDAR sensors to map the contour of trees, this pollen is distributed accurately.
BioBee Biological Systems is an integrated pest management company and a leading producer of Phytoseiulus persimilis, the most effective natural predator of Tetranychus urticae (red spider mite). Founded in 1984, BioBee’s facility mass-produces natural enemies of harmful pests by harvesting spiders, flies, and bees. BioBee’s products are sold worldwide in over 50 countries, and the company says its products have reduced the use of pesticides by up to 80%, which has helped stabilize many bee populations.
In 2016, BioBee shipped 500 million “predatory bugs” to Russia to control its spider mite population, as well as bumblebees to encourage pollination of vegetables. BioBee relies on bumblebees instead of honeybees, as bumblebees can work in colder temperatures, perform better under confined greenhouse conditions, and use a vibration mechanism called “buzz pollination” ideal for tomato plants.
BioBee says the “bumblebee is an ideal pollinator for greenhouse conditions, and for outdoor crops during marginal seasons.” It mass-produces the earth bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, at its headquarters in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.
BeeHero is a California-based, Israeli-founded company that uses beehive sensors to monitor hives. BeeHero was founded in 2017 by CEO Omer Davidi, CSO Michal Roizman, COO Itai Kanot, and CTO Yuval Regev.
The company says its monitoring system leads to more productive colonies and optimal hive deployment, which ultimately can increase crop yields by up to 30% for 70% of major crops. Data points like temperature, humidity, and amount of pollen brought to the colony are analyzed to determine factors like the stress level of the queen bee. Data generated from hive sensors are analyzed by BeeHero’s machine learning algorithms to give insight into hive health and pollination effectiveness. The system can detect if a colony is under stress or if a colony shows signs of collapse.
BeeHero recently raised USD 4 million in seed funding from Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.
Last month, the company announced that it was launching a new initiative called BeeHeroX to track and mitigate the spread of the predatory Asian giant hornet. BeeHeroX uses remote sensors to track these hornets, helping beekeepers and food growers develop preemptive measures to protect bee populations.
According to BeeHero founder Omer Davidi, an invasion of these hornets would create one of the biggest threats to honey bee pollination and detecting these hornets before a mass attack on a beehive could prevent colony collapse. BeeHeroX said it will donate sensors to create an incursion network of beehives at strategic locations, like areas with previous sightings or airports where hornets may enter the United States.
Israeli startup Beewise created the world’s first autonomous beehive, a device that houses up to 40 bee colonies which can be controlled through an app. Called Beehome, the solar-powered device is placed in the beekeeper’s field, and a robot within the device takes care of the bees in real time. The app then calculates data like honey harvested and pollen flow.
BeeHomes automatically control climate and humidity conditions, and pesticides are applied in real time if pests try to enter the Beehomes. AI technology adjusts conditions in the Beehome when it identifies that a colony is preparing to swarm, and Beehomes send alerts to beekeepers once a container of honey reaches its 100-gallon capacity. All of these changing conditions ensure that yields improve, pollination occurs more efficiently, and bee populations are protected.
ToBe2 is a bee tech company that focuses on controlling the Varroa mite, a parasitic mite that often leads to bee colony collapse.
ToBe2 developed a device called BeeProTech, a hive management device that optimizes the delivery of anti-Varroa compounds. In just two weeks, the device can lead to a reduction in Varroa by at least 98%, according to the company.
The core team consists of CEO Avi Ben Shimon, COO Ofer Yofev, and beekeeper Ron Korkidi.
Bumblebee is an early-stage agritech startup currently developing an artificial pollination solution to increase crop yields. Using AI technology, Bumblebee tries to mimic the natural pollination process to enlarge yields and improve fruit quality.
The company is specifically focusing on crops like avocado, kiwi, passionfruit, almonds, and blueberries. In 2019, the company, which was founded by Avi Keren, began trials in Peru on avocado orchards and blueberry fields.
Polyam, otherwise known as Pollination Services Yad-Mordechai, specializes in the mass production of bumblebee colonies for pollination of many crops, as well as the production of beneficial insects to control pests.
Started at Kibbutz Yad-Mordechai, Polyam works to protect crops like tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, and courgettes. Polyam also produces and markets the predatory bug Orius laevigatus, which controls the populations of insects like thrips.
This article first appeared in NoCamels, which covers innovations from Israel for a global audience.