Robo-bees Set To Revolutionize Pollination As Honeybee Populations Decline

Robee pollinates blueberry bushes. Photo courtesy of BloomX


By

Colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where bees die for mysterious reasons, caused alarm in recent decades and spurred a flurry of “save the bees” campaigns—because bees are needed to pollinate the plants that provide our food.

But Emily Speiser, VP of marketing for BloomX, says we’re buzzing around the wrong bee.

While colony collapse disorder mainly affected wild bees such as bumblebees, farmers generally use honeybees for pollination—even though they’re not as good at the job as wild bees—because they’re easier to transport and manage.

Bumblebee on a daisy flower in Markham, Ontario, Canada, on July 05, 2023. (CREATIVE TOUCH IMAGINE LTD./NURPHOTO/GETTY) 

The problem with honeybees, Speiser explains, is simply that we need a whole lot more of them as the world’s food needs grow.

Quoting figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Speiser says, “Since 1961, agricultural land has expanded by 600%. In the same time period, the number of managed honeybee hives has expanded by only 83%. So, we have a supply and demand problem.”

For instance, every year, some 48 billion honeybees are shipped to California’s almond groves, and then rotated to other parts of the country to pollinate additional crops. During their journeys, many of the bees perish.

BloomX is combating the honeybee population crisis with robo-bees.

The company, founded in 2019 in the small agricultural village of Rishpon, where CEO Thai Sade grew up, developed a robotic bee that pollinates as efficiently as a wild bee and without the risks involved with honeybees.

Robo-bees can bypass limitations introduced by some countries on “foreign” bees. Colombia, for example, prohibits bringing in honeybees that are not native, Speiser explains.

BloomX is focusing primarily on pollinating blueberries and avocados for now.

Blueberries grow in a self-picking field of Pomona Gartenbau GmbH & Co.KG on the day of the opening of the Brandenburg blueberry season. Blueberries and avocados are the first crops being targeted by BloomX’s new Robo-Bees.  (SOEREN STACHE/PICTURE ALLIANCE/GETTY) 

“These are cash crops, and we wanted to show a high ROI,” Speiser explains.

“Blueberries are expensive—avocados, too. We wanted to reach out to growers who will be able to immediately see the value we bring with high revenue coming from a significant yield increase and improved fruit quality.”

BloomX’s first product, Robee for blueberries, is a mobile unit with mechanical arms and the ability to “bio-mimic” the buzz of the bee.

Pollinating blueberries involves shaking the plant to move the pollen from the berries’ male to female parts. This job is normally done by bumblebees.

In fact, when BloomX first started, it was known as Bumblebee AI. The name change to BloomX helps position the company for more use cases with different plants and different types of bees. Each crop requires different mechanisms, Speiser tells ISRAEL21c.

BloomX’s second product is the robotic Crossbee for pollinating avocados.

Avocado trees, unlike blueberries, are either male or female, so they require cross-pollination (except for a short time when both male and female flowers in the same tree open to enable self-pollination).

Rather than shaking, like Robee, Crossbee mimics the electrostatic forces—the kind you get when you rub a balloon on your hair—that are applied by the bee to extract the sticky pollen grains.

In this picture taken on April 24, 2023, a drone with a pollination device is used in a demonstration of avocado tree pollination at an orchard near Kibbutz Eyal in the center of Israel. As climate change and global population growth pose ever greater challenges for agriculture, Israeli technology offers a wealth of inventions and advanced tools to help farmers adapt. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GETTY) 

However, avocado pollination is complicated.

First, the flowers of male and female avocado trees open at different hours. Second, there are Type A and Type B avocado trees. The Haas avocado, for example, is the best-selling Type A tree. It is pollinated by bees that have recently visited a Type B tree, such as the Ettinger.

So, the Crossbee removes the pollen from male avocado trees by extracting it into a “frame” which can then be removed from the Crossbee and stored without preservatives for up to 24 hours until the female trees are ready for pollination.

Field operators in South Africa with Crossbee for avocado pollination. Photo courtesy of BloomX

Often, growers plant two different varieties of avocado so that the pollination between male and female can be synchronized. In these cases, Crossbee doesn’t need to store the pollen.

What fruits are next on BloomX’s agenda? Apples and mangos, Speiser says, as well as other types of berries beyond the blue ones. Greenhouse tomatoes are also a target.

There’s one more piece to BloomX’s pollen solution: data.

The BloomX app taps into databases and artificial intelligence to give growers intel on the best time to pollinate the appropriate flowers.

Which varieties will be open in the morning or the afternoon? Are they Type A or Type B? Male or female? What’s the impact of temperature, humidity and exposure to light?

“We take our agricultural knowhow of how these environmental factors affect flower receptivity and provide the grower a daily ‘window’ of time for pollination, so the grower can plan ahead,” Speiser says.

BloomX has paying clients in Latin America (Mexico, Peru and Colombia), South Africa, Israel and the United States, where BloomX is running a proof-of-concept study.

Given that everything agricultural is becoming self-driving, including huge John Deere tractors, we asked Speiser why BloomX’s robo-bee vehicles are not autonomous.

In this picture taken on April 24, 2023, a bee pollinates a plant at an avocado orchard at Kibbutz Eyal in the center of Israel.  (MENAHEM KAHANA /AFP) 

“We wanted to grab the market and to be first,” she explains. “Peru is the No. 1 exporter globally of blueberries. Forty-five percent of the world’s avocados come from Mexico. They don’t suffer from a shortage of labor, but their workforce is not that tech-savvy. If we offered an autonomous tool from the get-go, I’m not sure if they would adopt it.”

Nevertheless, BloomX has a partnership with Tevel Aerobotics, whose flying autonomous robot (FAR) grabs fruit off trees. Instead of a picker, BloomX mounts an electrode payload on the FAR that extracts pollen from the avocado trees.

 

According to BloomX, Robee can increase blueberry yield by up to 30% and decrease small-size fruit by 55% while increasing large-size fruit by 29%.

“We all want big blueberries,” Speiser notes. “You can charge almost twice the price for large-size fruit.”

Avocados do even better: Farmers using Crossbee have seen a 40% increase in yield with 200% more of the preferred consumer-size category for the fruit (like Goldilocks, most consumers choose medium avocados).

Environmentally, the BloomX system removes the need to transport bees from field to field during pollination season, and allows farmers to use less pesticide and herbicide. And, of course, it is not subject to bee “moods”—if it’s too hot, real bees will stay in the hive; if it’s too cold, they go dormant.

BloomX is thinking buzzy big. The 17-person company has raised $8 million to date.

BloomX’s end goal, Speiser adds, is that “in 10 to 15 years, we will replace honeybees for pollination entirely with biomimicking.”

 

Given Israel’s agricultural roots, it’s not surprising there are a busy hive’s worth of bee-focused startups in the country. They include:

  • Bee-io, which aims to make honey without bees.
  • BeeWise, which can house up to 40 colonies, or two million bees, allowing beekeepers to remotely care for their hives.
  • BeeHero, which helps farmers optimize where to place hives.
  • BioBee, which replaces honeybees with bumblebees.
  • ToBe, which sprays a miticide to combat varroa, a parasite that feeds on honeybees and infects them with dangerous viruses.
  • Edete, which has developed an artificial pollination technology using vehicles that resemble tractors

 

Produced in association with ISRAEL21c

Edited by Jessi Rexroad Shull and Joseph Donald Gunderson




Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /data/11/0/112/52/764704/user/782211/htdocs/site/wp-content/themes/dialy-theme/includes/single/post-info.php on line 4