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Plan Bee – Exploring Israel’s Solutions to Australia’s Bee Problem

Cause for Concern

In June 2022, the detection of varroa mites (aptly named ‘varroa destructor’) in sentinel hives at NSW’s Port of Newcastle triggered an immediate national eradication response plan across Australia. This led to a tumultuous six months of tracking, surveillance and implementing biosecurity measures to curb the proliferation of the mite – known globally as an agricultural pest.

The Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry joined forces with its state and territory counterparts to implement the response plan, which follows a three-tiered surveillance system – where the epicenters of outbreaks were designated 10km ‘Eradication Zones,’ assigned parameters where honeybees were systemically (and humanely) euthanised (NSW Department of Primary Industries). While this has slowed the spread of the varroa, the mite has spread as far north as Coffs Harbour. Australia’s zero-varroa legacy has come to an end.

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 (BeeAware). This can be potentially lethal to the overall wellbeing 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. In Australia, it is estimated that honey bees contribute four to six billion dollars to our economy, annually. Indeed, we’re lucky that the varroa has not been cause for concern – until now.

Eradication of the mite is the best policy. The varroa threatens the wellbeing of Australia’s honey bee population, and therefore the wellbeing 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.

Now the ‘Start-Up Nation’ has an array of bee-focused exports at its disposal – and they may be just what Australia 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 their 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.

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 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 in Australia, 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 specialises 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 utilises 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.

It is clear that the answer to Australia’s (and the world’s) bee troubles lies in Israeli innovation, whether it be through monitoring bee hive health and managing varroa outbreak or if all else fails, artificial pollination. The implementation of technologies like those of BeeWise and Bumblebee AI is pivotal in ensuring the sustainability of Australia’s food supply.

For further information on beetech or agritech more broadly, reach out to Luke Bulbrook.

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