Saving the bees with robotic hives
In the mid-19th century Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, an American apiarist, sketched out the designs for a new type of beehive. It consisted of a wooden box with removable frames. Before that, beehives tended to be in wicker baskets or enclosed boxes that were less practical and harder to manipulate without disrupting the occupants (traditionally, the entire hive was crushed in order to extract the honey). In the 150 odd years since the Langstroth hive caught on – helping revolutionize industrial beekeeping in the process – the design has remained remarkably unchanged. What has changed, however, is that vital pollinators like bees are facing rapid decline around the world as a result of climate change, pesticides, pests and diseases. Currently 35-40 per cent of managed bee colonies die each year globally.
While agriculture has historically been a rapid adopter of new technology – and today is using autonomous crop monitoring robots, drones and AI to maximize efficiency and yields – beekeeping hadn’t taken an equivalent leap. Beekeepers take their hives from crop to crop, often across the country, during each respective pollination season. Though it is possible to diagnose and treat many problems that bees face, the keepers are unable to do so in real time because of vast distances between the hives, as well as a shortage of skilled labour, and colonies’ health suffers as a result. “It’s a laggard industry,” says Saar Safra, CEO and co-founder of Beewise. “Since the wooden box, the most recent novelty in beekeeping is forklifts, and that was invented 60 years ago.”
Beewise wants to bring about a long-needed revolution in beekeeping. The company was launched in 2018 after Safra, who comes from a tech-startup background, had a “serendipitous” conversation with co-founder Eliyah Radzyner, a beekeeper. Radzyner suggested that AI and robotics could be the answer, and the pair set to work developing the first robotic beehive. Dubbed the BeeHome, it is an autonomous solar-paneled device that contains 24 colonies and enables keepers to care for their bees remotely. Every element of the hive environment is monitored and optimised with the help of cameras, sensors and machine learning. There is climate and humidity control. A robotic arm pulls out each frame and shakes off the adult bees, so the brood and comb can be inspected as it’s scanned from multiple camera angles. Computer vision analyses the contents of the frames to make predictions and recommendations (to determine if a colony needs feeding and whether honey is ready to harvest, for example). These high-resolution images are also available for manual review from the comfort of a beekeeper’s home or office. “And if harmful pesticides are being used in the crops, the mechanical entrance can shut,” says Safra. “Bees can last three months in their home, so keeping them in for 12 hours is not a big deal.” Compared with the 40 per cent colony collapse, which is the norm, Beewise, in the past three years, has seen just 7.59 per cent of its colonies collapse. “And that’s across thousands and thousands of colonies. That’s what we sell to our customers.”
Beewise’s closest partners are the beekeepers themselves. “We don’t have the bees, so we partner with them to provide better pollination services to the farmers.” While the BeeHome is able to provide superior protection for its bees, reduce manual labour through remote monitoring, and increase yield, persuading keepers to move their bees from the “wooden box to my tin box”, as Safra puts it, is one of its primary hurdles. “When we say we even harvest the honeycombs, they look at us like ‘that can't be true’. Harvest is a complex process; they have to see it happen.” Beewise has provided free devices to some organisations to help them see the effect first-hand, and collaborates with researchers to deepen understanding of the health and behaviour of bees.
The BeeHome is, however, an intricate piece of machinery. It will depend on economies of scale to bring down the production costs and make the business profitable (though, as Safra points out, this is why, five years on, they are yet to have any competitors). While Beewise was founded in Israel and expanded to the US, the BeeHome is made in Mexico. The manufacturing supply chain is improving, says Safra, and as far as its customers are concerned, the machines pay for themselves, with an ROI of 18-24 months.
Beewise is a small player, but the growth potential is clear. There are about 100 million beehives on the planet and Safra hopes that BeeHome will steadily begin to replace them. For him, this is not simply about turning a profit: “Saving the bees is not just a business mission. There’s real value in it for us, for humanity.” Global food supply is in jeopardy and, according to some models, we may have as little as 25 years to change the course of ecological collapse. The survival of bees will play a central role in our ability to survive, and bees, naturally, are central to every decision made at Beewise. “They’re not the user of the device,” says Safra, “but they’re the customer. They live in it, right? So, for everything we do, we have to consult with the bees.”
Joins a division of aQuantive in Seattle as VP and General Manager of the Rich Media department at Atlas
Rich Media is acquired by Microsoft, so transitions there as Director to integrate its products
Co-founds ActiveBuilding, a Seattle-based digital property management company
Co-founds Beewise with beekeeper Eliyah Radzyner
Named on ISRAEL21c magazine’s list of ‘48 Israelis who are uniquely shaping Israel and the world, today and into the future’