Bees have managed to survive some 100 million years without the help of venture capitalists.
In recent years, however, with many populations of crucial species threatened, we’re increasingly recognizing how much ecosystems and agriculture rely on these extraordinary creatures. Investors, meanwhile, are finding that bee-related businesses can offer both environmental benefits and some potentially good returns.
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At least 15 bee-related startups have raised funding in the past couple years, per Crunchbase data. Collectively, they’ve brought in over $165 million to date for business models that range from AI-enabled robotic beehives to biotherapeutics for ailing bees. We list them below:
Better beehives, better pollination
The largest funding recipient by a long shot is Beewise, an Israeli company that makes robotic beehives that allow beekeepers to remotely care for their hives and bees. Founded in 2018, Beewise has raised around $119 million to date, including an $80 million March Series C round led by Insight Partners.
Its high-tech beehives come with pest monitoring, and climate and humidity control. They’re even equipped with AI-enabled technology that can identify when a colony could be preparing to swarm and adjust conditions to prevent it. Beekeepers also get alerted when a honey container is full, helping to automate the harvest process.
Beyond high-tech beehives, funded startups are also focusing on tools for farmers to optimize the pollination process. In this vein, BeeHero, has raised $24 million to date for its “pollination as a service” offering, which adds a dose of data science and sensor networks to the old-fashioned business of getting bees to do their thing. Another startup, Los Angeles-based Beeflow, has raised $12 million to create and manage pollination programs for farmers, with an eye toward increasing crop yields.
Lest anyone understate the importance of bees in agriculture, startups are quick to set the record straight. Per BeeHero, 70% of crops worldwide rely on bees, whose increasing mortality rate, coupled with colony collapse disorder, puts financial strain on farmers and beekeepers. This makes it harder to feed a growing global population.
Honey without bees
Then there’s honey. While we associate bees with honey, this is somewhat of a misconception. In North America, for instance, the vast majority of native bee species are not honey producers. More than 90% of the nearly 4,000 native bee species live not in hives but alone in nests.
While honeybee levels remain robust due to commercial cultivation and wild populations, the same can’t be said for native bees. Pesticides, disease, habitat loss and climate change are all causes for population declines, but scientists say competition with honeybees may also play a role.
Faced with these problematic dynamics, some entrepreneurial types are focusing on making honey without bees. This is the aim of Oakland-based MeliBio, which closed on a $5.7 million round in March. It rolled out its first offering, a plant-based honey, in October, and says the product “looks, tastes and acts like bee-made honey.”
Another startup, The Single Origin Food Co., is also promoting a “vegan un-honey” among its product offerings. The company, which raised $1.1 million to date, pitches its product as pro animal rights, attesting that: “no animals, regardless of size, deserve to be exploited for their labor.”
Healthier bees (and humans)
Bee health is also a startup theme. To this end, Athens, Georgia-based Dalan Animal Health has secured $1.9 million in seed funding to develop vaccines and biotherapeutics to improve the health and productivity of honeybee colonies.
In particular, Dalan is targeting American Foulbrood, an ailment it describes as “among the most devastating of bee bacterial infections.” Its vaccine technology exposes queen bees to inactive bacteria, which enables the larvae hatched in the hive to resist infection.
Vatorex, a seed- and grant-funded upstart out of Zurich, is focusing on the varroa mite, a major threat to honeybee populations. The company says its chemical-free solution eradicates the mites and the viruses they spread, without causing harm to bees.
Other startups are incorporating honey into therapies for humans. For instance, Memphis-based SweetBio, which counts Apple among its backers, sells wound-care treatment made with collagen and Manuka honey.
A one-sided relationship
Throughout history, the relationship between bees and humans has been one-sided: We need them to survive; they’re just fine without us. But for now, with both our species occupying the planet, it’s certainly sensible to find better ways for all of us to thrive.
What shape will this take? Notably, most venture capital going to the bee and honey space is directed around more efficient, disease-resistant forms of hive cultivation. Others, meanwhile, envision a future in which the honey-producing labor of bees may be substituted with plant-based alternatives.
Either way, with their lengthy and prodigious evolutionary history, it’s a good bet that bees will manage to outlast homo sapiens in the long run. Fortunately for us, that should play out over a time horizon exponentially longer than the typical venture investment cycle.
Image Credit: Wolfgang Hasselmann via Unsplash.