Cause for concern
The parasitic varroa mite is a major challenge to honey bee populations around the world, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of bees each year.
Varroa mites affect both Asian honey bees (Apis cerana) and European honey bees (Apis mellifera) – the only two honey-producing bee species which are responsible for the production of the world’s supply of honey.
Up until 2022, Australia and Antarctica were the only two continents not to be infected with varroa. However, in June 2022, varroa mites were detected in sentinel hives in Australia, leading to further calls for systematized eradication of the parasite.
Varroa mites are particularly damaging to honey bees because of how they reproduce. They feed and reproduce on the larvae and pupae of bees in the developing brood – which leads to malformation and weakening of the bees, while also transmitting viruses. This can be potentially lethal to the overall well-being of a hive.
Why such a drastic response?
Bees play a massive role in pollinating the plants that we eat – with around 75% of the world’s crops dependent on pollinators. It is estimated that up to US $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on the contribution of bees. They are therefore incredibly valuable to the global economy.
Eradication of the mite is the best policy. The varroa threatens not only the well-being of the global honey bee population but also the well-being of our broader agricultural sector.
Israel buzzing with solutions
Israel has a long history of innovation within the agricultural sphere. Indeed, this developed largely out of necessity, with two-thirds of Israeli land considered either semi-arid or arid. Food security is therefore critical to Israel’s economy, with bee technology one of the latest growth areas.
The ‘Start-Up Nation’ has developed an array of bee-focused exports – and they may be just what the world needs to combat its bee troubles.
BeeWise has redesigned the beehive to improve bee health management. It has replaced the traditional, 150-year-old wooden box hives that we know, with its own ‘BeeHome’ – a caravan-like structure that both houses and monitors the bees while also performing essential beekeeper tasks, robotically. Some of its capabilities include a climate and humidity control system, and pest and population control.
So what does this fix?
Bees are sensitive to changes in temperature within their hives. Any temperature beneath 32.2 and above 35 degrees is considered suboptimal and may inhibit healthy brood rearing. A sustained suboptimal climate may ultimately lead to the very real risk of colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind the queen and a few nurse bees to support the brood. BeeWise’s real-time problem alerts can ensure that any change in climate or humidity may be quickly reversed, providing a better environment for brood rearing and reducing the risk of colony collapse disorder.
As we’ve established, the existence of varroa in hives leads to weakened bees and can be potentially lethal. BeeWise’s solution also incorporates pest control, offering continual monitoring for pests. When pests – like varroa – are detected, non-chemical treatment is applied in real-time. This results in a significant reduction in infestation and ultimately mitigates colony loss. ToBe, another Israeli pioneer in bee technology, has also developed a similar product.
As we’ve seen, CCD is disastrous for bee colonies. It is a very real threat, decimating the global bee population – and has had a particular effect on the most common breed of bee – the Western Honey Bee. The global decline of the Western Honey Bee, of course, threatens the global supply chain – due to the broad range of crops that rely on pollination by a bee (i.e. ‘pollinator reliant’ crops). Almonds, cotton, avocados, lychees, berries, macadamias, melons, and onions are just some examples of pollinator-reliant crops.
So, if so many types of crops (and so many export dollars) are being threatened by the potential collapse of our tiny friends, is there a backup option? Yes – and it’s called artificial pollination.
Israel’s Bumblebee AI specializes in data-driven artificial pollination that mimics the natural pollination process. Their Crossbee device emits an electrostatic charge (much like bees do) that attracts positively-charged pollen from the crops, which can then be applied to female crops to complete the pollination process. Incorporate robotics into the mix, and you have Robee – a semi-autonomous robotic device that utilizes vibration to displace pollen. Its two mechanical arms deliver short vibrations to the base of crops, to free up pollen so that it falls on the female flowers of the plant.
Is artificial pollination the only option?
If artificial pollination is too sci-fi, there are other options around natural pollination. BioBee utilizes bumblebees as an alternative to pollination by the honeybee. Bumblebees are capable of pollinating in greenhouses and net structures, as well as in open fields and orchards. In contrast to honeybees, bumblebees don’t store honey and must forage daily. They, therefore, are capable of working in cold, cloudy, and rainy conditions, and work fast (up to four times faster than honey bees) leading to more effective pollination and therefore larger yields for growers. BioBee rears bumblebees to provide growers with a sustainable solution for natural pollination.
BioBee also specializes in biologically integrated pest management (IPM), providing farmers with beneficial predatory insects and mites as an alternative to harsh chemical pesticides. For example, their BioFly brand utilizes sterilized male pupae and sterile male flies for dispersal in agricultural fields, in order to combat Mediterranean fruit flies – another agricultural pest.
Less bees, less honey?
Honey production is also being affected by a global decrease in honey bee populations. Only seven out of more than 20,000 bee species produce honey.
Bee-io has developed a solution that sees honey artificially produced, without the need for bees. Their process combines natural nectar flowers with a unique biological process that turns the nectar into honey. The company aims to develop cultured honey via an artificial bee stomach, that naturally mimics the enzymatic activity and specific processes that occur within a bee’s stomach. Bee-io is also working on technologies that produce natural nectar to increase the capacity of honey production. Through these technologies, Bee-io is making the global consumption of honey sustainable.
It is clear that the answer to the world’s bee troubles lies in Israeli innovation, whether it be through monitoring bee hive health and managing varroa outbreak, or harnessing the power of bumble bees. If all else fails, the artificial pollination of crops and the artificial production of honey may be the answer. The implementation of Israeli beetech solutions is pivotal in ensuring the sustainability of our global food supply.
Written by Luke Bulbrook at the Israel Trade Commission in Sydney (firstname.lastname@example.org).