Buzzy Times for bee startups

Bees have managed to survive for about 100 million years without the help of venture capitalists.

However, in recent years, with many populations of critical species under threat, we are increasingly recognizing how much ecosystems and agriculture depend on these extraordinary creatures. Investors, meanwhile, are discovering that bee-related businesses can offer both environmental benefits and potentially good returns.

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According to Crunchbase data, at least 15 bee-related startups have raised funding in recent years. Collectively, they have raised more than $165 million to date for business models ranging from AI-enabled robotic hives to biotherapeutics for sick bees. We list them below:

Better hives, better pollination

By far the largest recipient of funding is Beewise, an Israeli company that makes robotic hives that allow beekeepers to care for their hives and bees remotely. Founded in 2018, Beewise has raised approximately $119 million to date, including an $80 million Series C round in March led by Insight Partners.

The high-tech hives come with pest monitoring and climate and humidity control. They are even equipped with AI technology that can identify when a colony might be preparing to swarm and adjust conditions to prevent it. Beekeepers are also alerted when a honey container is full, automating the harvesting process.

In addition to high-tech beehives, funded startups also focus on tools for farmers to optimize the pollination process. In this vein, BeeHero has raised $24 million so far for its “pollination as a service” offering, which adds a dose of data science and sensor networks to the old-fashioned business of letting bees do their thing. Another startup, Los Angeles-based Beeflow, has raised $12 million to create and manage pollination programs for farmers with a view to increasing crop yields.

Not to underestimate the importance of bees in agriculture, startups are quick to set the record straight. According to BeeHero, 70% of crops worldwide depend on bees, whose rising mortality rate, coupled with colony collapse disorder, is putting financial strain on farmers and beekeepers. This makes it more difficult to feed a growing world population.

Honey without bees

Then there is honey. While we associate bees with honey, this is somewhat of a misconception. In North America, for example, the vast majority of native bee species are not honey producers. More than 90% of the nearly 4,000 native bee species do not live in beehives but only in nests.

While honeybee levels remain robust due to commercial farming and wild populations, the same cannot be said for native bees. Pesticides, diseases, habitat loss and climate change are all causes of population decline, but scientists say competition with honeybees may also play a role.

Faced with these problematic dynamics, some entrepreneurs are turning to making honey without bees. This is the goal of Oakland-based MeliBio, which closed in March with a $5.7 million round. It introduced its first offering, a plant-based honey, in October, saying the product “looks, tastes and works like bee honey.”

Another startup, The Single Origin Food Co., is also promoting a “vegan non-honey” in its product offerings. The company, which has raised $1.1 million to date, presents its product as pro-animal rights, affirming that “no animals, regardless of size, deserve to be exploited for their work.”

Healthier bees (and people)

Bee health is also a startup theme. To that 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, a condition it describes as “one of the most devastating bacterial infections in bees.” The vaccine technology exposes queen bees to inactive bacteria, allowing the larvae hatched in the hive to resist infection.

Vatorex, a seed and grant-funded upstart from Zurich, targets the Varroa mite, a major threat to honeybee populations. The company says its chemical-free solution will eradicate the mites and viruses they spread without harming bees.

Other startups are using honey in human therapies. For example, Memphis-based SweetBio, which Apple counts among its supporters, sells wound care products 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 are fine without us. But for now, with both our species occupying the planet, it certainly makes sense to find better ways for all of us to thrive.

What form will this take? Notably, most of the venture capital going into the bee and honey space is focused on more efficient, disease-resistant forms of beehive farming. Others, meanwhile, envision a future in which the honey-producing labor of bees can be replaced by plant-based alternatives.

Either way, with their long and prodigious evolutionary history, it’s a good bet that bees will survive homo sapiens in the long run. Fortunately for us, that should hold true over a time horizon that is exponentially longer than the typical venture capital investment cycle.

Image credit: Wolfgang Hasselmann via Unsplash.

Keep up to date with recent funding rounds, acquisitions and more with the Crunchbase Daily.

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