Well...ok...the drones are not ‘killing’ the pollination business just yet. But, since my last post on drone pollination, I’ve found some other alternative pollinators that are trying to find a place in the pollination market. Perhaps these drones will help alleviate bee supply issues some growers are facing.
In North Carolina, Thomas Parish IV and his team have built the Poli-X2 drone, which pollinates more similarly to bees (unlike the Pollinator Bot, referenced in my previous blog post). The Poli-X2 has been testing in local gardens since 2017. One of the biggest challenges they faced in developing their model was inhibiting the device from lurching forward when flying in for flower pollination. From what I can see in the video footage, it looks like they’ve done a pretty good job with this.
Their model is not designed to replace bees, but to supplement the pollination done by existing bees. The drone uses artificial intelligence to scan for pre-programmed species of flowers, including tree flowers. At this time, the images being collected from the device are being sent via WiFi to a nearby PC where decisions are made regarding which plants to pollinate. Later development plans are to install this decision-making software within the device... that’s what we call edge computing, good ol' IoT (internet of things).
The Bee Corp is headed to the Forbes AgTech Summit next month in Indianapolis, and fellow attendee and panelist Anna Haldewang has been working on her own pollination drone, Plan Bee, which she first devised for a product design course at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia.
The drone is controlled by a smart device and has six sections on its underside that suck pollen from the flowers it hovers over. The pollen is later expelled for cross-pollination. It’s innovative…and, yes, I’m going to say it...it’s so darn cute! Art and Engineering combined!
Now, there are other ways of getting flowering crops pollinated... such as literally dropping a whole mess of pollen from the sky. Dropcopter, the aptly-named startup with offices in New York & San Francisco, has developed a drone to do just that. Some test results show that the Dropcopter drones can increase "pollination rates" between 25-60% in almonds & cherries, depending on weather conditions.
It's unclear how they measure pollination rate—perhaps it's the number of times each flower is visited by bees? Regardless, I applaud this no-frills approach.
But if you want to get REALLY heavy-handed with the pollination, you can give the guys from Pollen-Tech a call. This Arizona-based AgTech startup doesn’t use drones in its operation, but an electrostatic spray technology to mist almond trees during pollination season. Initial field test results showed a 6.55% increase in crop yield over untreated control-group trees. The electrostatic charge helps the pollen become attracted to the stigma of the flowers, increasing the efficiency of the process, without significant pollen loss.
It’s great to see all of these technological innovations in the works. For the near future, these methods are only equipped to supplement what the busy bees are doing in their pollination efforts. And they could help give growers some peace of mind when aren’t able to book the bevy of bees they need to get their crops pollinated. Exciting times for AgTech!
Small-scale beekeepers are part of a thriving community that so heavily relies on cooperation and mentorship. Hobbyists and sideliners go out of their way to teach others, support local clubs and help newbies get off the ground. Yet as operations scale into the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of hives, a different community appears to emerge. A community that doesn’t always feel so cooperative.
There are plenty of good reasons for why large-scale beekeepers hold their cards close to their chests. For one, these beekeepers aren’t doing it for fun; commercial beekeepers need to be competitive because, like any business, their livelihood is at stake. Taking an aspiring commercial beekeeper under your wing to show them the ropes could create a monster that eventually eats into your business.
Other factors have to do with the nature of the job. Beekeepers don’t spend their time in an office making calls, connecting and networking with clients and vendors. Beekeepers—even the big guys—are out working the bees every day. They need all hands on deck, otherwise the work won’t get done. It’s difficult to set aside a couple hours to show a new guy how to move through hundreds of hives in a day.
Beekeepers are isolated. Major operations are often located in the middle of nowhere. Even if one can arrange to spend a few days shadowing with a commercial beekeeper, driving up to Musselshell, Montana can be a major pain.
Beekeepers spend far more time with bees than with people. This point may sound obvious, but it’s easy for isolated beekeepers to develop a bit of tunnel vision. Working bees is a practice in observation. Spending months on end observing nothing but your bees can cause one to forget that there are others out in the trenches going through the same struggles.
How can we contribute?
Here’s my point: the commercial beekeeping community is too shut-off. We need more large-scale beekeepers to embrace the small beekeepers’ model of cooperation and mentorship if we expect the next generation to carry this industry into the future.
Here are a few simple things we can all do to pitch in:
Before I sign off, I should point out that there are many exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can spout off more than 20 big-time beekeepers whose contributions to the community far outweigh what they ask in return. Expect a follow-up post from me spotlighting some of the truly altruistic beekeepers who are devoted to building our community.
Have you heard this news? Scientists in Japan have built a pollinator bot, a remote-controlled drone, that can go from flower to flower, brushing against the flower’s stamen with a horsehair paintbrush that’s covered in a sticky ionic liquid gel, both lifting off pollen from each flower as well as depositing some of that pollen on to the next. It’s a little hard to “drive”, but put Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the driver's seat and this may be the future of pollination.
But, hold on, hold on…. Let’s pump the brakes for a second here, folks. Is it even feasible at this point that these drones could take over the role of the honeybee in the pollination process?
Breaking down the numbers
Thanks to Joe Traynor's excellent analysis which inspired this post, we know about half of the foraging bees per acre (~4,000 bees) will be actively pollinating at one time. The other half will be back in the hive (or on their way back) to offload their pollen and fuel up for the next trip.
The bees end up visiting each flower multiple times during their daily foraging period, from around 10:00am to 2:00pm. The extra trips to the flowers, dropping off extra pollen, stimulates the growth of the pollen grain that did end up pollinating the flower.
Each tree has about 20,000 flowers. With 40 bees to pollinate each tree at the rate of about 10 flowers per minute, they’ll be able to pollinate about 96,000 flowers during a work day. Which equates to visiting each flower 4 to 5 times.
Comparing the costs
Now, until AI can replace a manual operator, a remote-controlled drone needs a human to control it. Let’s say a person controlling a drone is super focused and can pollinate 5 trees, lush with almond bloom, trying their best to get all the flowers nestled within the branches, in a day, at $15/hr.
Picking a winner
To get the pollination job done in the same amount of time using drones, it would cost over $100,000--more than 8 times as much as the cost of renting bees!
So, beekeepers of the world, sit back and relax for now. When it comes to pollination, the honeybee is key!
After traversing what seemed like nearly every mile of the Central Valley this month, I’m finally back in Bloomington. Wyatt got back last week, but I stuck around to attend the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas as part of the AgriNovus Indiana delegation, there to represent Indiana’s Agbiosciences sector. We came back with insights on how to make the first-ever Indianapolis Forbes AgTech Summit shine, but I also took the opportunity to meet with more almond growers and the Almond Board of California to continue our effort to learn about how our research and data can help the industry.
Western Growers Association Welcome Dinner
The conference kicked off in the beautiful courtyard of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. The people on hand represented some of the biggest names in agriculture and AgTech. The highlight of the evening for me was watching Edwin Camp, President of D.M. Camp and Sons, win the Champion of Innovation Award. Edwin is a Kern Country grower of many crops, including almonds.
Thrive Demo Day
The first morning of the conference, I attended the Thrive Demo Day for good coffee, great pitches, and even better company. I love watching other startups pitch, and always take away ideas on how to make The Bee Corp pitch stronger. My favorite world-changing idea was Re-Nuble, which turns food waste into organic fertilizer for crops. With an impressive business model that earns revenue both from the food waste collection and their end-product, Re-Nuble will be a fun company to watch.
Forbes AgTech Summit
The event was packed with talks and panels on a wide range of topics—vertical farming, blockchain, sustainability, robotics, soil health, and more. My favorite aspect was how many growers were featured in the panels. The AgTech industry exists to support growers, and I was happy to see that the Forbes organizers didn’t forget that. One interesting takeaway was how Megan Nunes of Vinsight stressed that AgTech companies need to work together through data sharing to best benefit growers.
Now it is Indiana’s turn. Kip Tom of Tom Farms was there to tee up our major announcement: the next Forbes AgTech summit, featuring innovations found across the Midwest, will be held in Indianapolis. As a board member of AgriNovus, I am excited to see the hard work of my fellow Hoosiers pay off! Agbiosciences innovation in Indiana has come such a long way, and we’re excited to get the word out: it’s happening here!
Travaille and Phippen
Another highlight of my week was experiencing the innovation along the almond value chain with a visit to Travaille and Phippen. I was impressed to see the extent of sustainability throughout the growing cycle—even the dirt and rocks that come off the field are recycled for other uses. Dave’s team had left one final last stack of hulls sitting out, and as a birder I enjoyed watching the birds forage for almond pieces that might be hidden in the mound.
In the plant we climbed up brand new machinery aimed at making the factory even more efficient. The entire process is automated; the hulling plant only requires three people to operate the machines! We spoke about how the company has needed to adapt to tariffs by shipping in-shell almonds (think pistachios)—a product with growing market demand in countries like India. We toured through the almond libraries of various USDA grades, and visited the sorting facility where humans and robots work together to quickly sort almonds from a conveyor belt. It was an immersive learning experience, and I was thankful to see the entire process from field soil prep to final product.
Almond Board of California
For the last leg of my trip, I met with folks that work in bee research for the Almond Board of California. We chatted and brainstormed about how the data we are collecting could be a key element to better understand the almond industry supply chain. I also learned about all the research and support programs driven by the Almond Board, and I enjoyed getting to know some of the folks helping beekeepers and growers work together in harmony.
I’m eager for our next trip out west, but for now I’m happy to be back with our bees in the Hoosier state.
Beekeepers from the Lone Star state have enjoyed some extra cash flow from a statewide program launched a few years ago.
As of January 1st, 2012, beekeeping in Texas qualifies for an Ag Valuation on property taxes. This means landowners could save hundreds, and maybe even thousands of dollars on property taxes each year. Beekeepers can benefit immensely by selling or renting their hives to program participants. This has been a golden opportunity in Texas for nearly half a decade.
For a landowner to qualify, he must own between 5-20 acres of land in Texas. Said land must have beehives placed on the property to qualify. However, the landowner does not need to purchase or own bees, colonies can be rented. Participants are advised to keep detailed and accurate records for reporting purposes.
This can be a great business opportunity for any beekeeper who manages hives in Texas. You’re probably aware of the saying “follow the money,” and you can surely live by that saying if you head to Texas. We’ve heard of some beekeepers renting their hives to participants for $25 per month. That’s a pretty nice payday if you ask me.
If you want to learn more or get involved, the Texas Beekeepers Association has put together helpful resources pertaining to the Ag Exemption on their website.