beewise: With robotics and artificial intelligence, a "five-star hotel" to help honeybees

beewise: With robotics and artificial intelligence, a “five-star hotel” to help honeybees

When honeybees check into the “five star” Beewise Hotel, they don’t want to check out. A robotic arm that meets all their needs. Are you hungry, sick or hot? An AI program tells the robot to administer nutrients or antibiotics, to harvest honey or turn up the AC inside the high-tech hive. The intensive care routine is designed to maximize bees’ chances of survival and success against staggering odds, so that they can continue to pollinate billions of acres of crops each year despite a warming planet.

For decades, these crucial insects, which pollinate more than 75% of all fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown worldwide, have been subject to severe man-made pressures, including toxic pesticides, new diseases, and increasing heat. Beewise, a 4-year-old startup based in Oakland, California, provides a particularly inspiring example of how robotics and artificial intelligence can radically slow and even reverse the global honey bee die-off.

It’s a technological marvel of adaptation – so why did it leave me feeling exasperated?

Beewise is a testament to our human ability to solve even the most intractable problems. We now know that we must adapt to climate change: changing how and where we live, adjusting how food is grown and maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystems on which we depend. But all of these coping measures raise another daunting possibility: the more ingenious our coping tools are, the more likely it is that we will avoid mitigating the underlying problems driving the crisis. We must do both.

Without a doubt, honeybees need our help right now. The combined pressures of pesticides and diseases combined with monocultures of crops that rob essential nutrients from bees and increasingly erratic weather have led to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that has been killing bee colonies at a rate of 25% to 30% per year. the past 15 years. Now, heat, drought and changing seasons are making it worse. Last year, a major national study reported a whopping 45% annual death rate for commercial honey bee colonies.

While the demand for bees in agriculture has grown exponentially in recent decades, the infrastructure for commercial pollination has developed little. These distinctive wooden boxes filled with honeycomb screens have been in use since the 1850s, and continue to be the industry standard for commercial beekeeping. Nearly all of the new technologies that have emerged in the past decade to help bees adapt to modern stressors are basically just adding sensors and cameras to these old wooden boxes.

This is where Beewise saw an opportunity for disruption: Founder Saar Safra describes their new commercial hives as a kind of “five-star bee hotel.” The 10-foot-tall, multi-level, metal-clad structures can hold up to 10 colonies. On top of tending to basic needs, the units can sense when pesticide is being sprayed in a nearby field and rotate the nozzles, isolating insects from potential chemical washout. To date, Beewise has raised $120 million and distributed 1,000 of its robotic hives to farms across California and Oregon. Within four years, they had reduced the collapse rate to less than 8% from 35% in the colonies they run. They hope to cut that down to a 2% loss as their AI systems get a better understanding of the bees’ needs. With demand for their products far outstripping supply, they aim to have 10,000 units in the fields by the end of 2024.

Safra’s robotic beehives are also accumulating a huge stock of data on bee behaviors, stressors, and solutions that could be an intrinsic asset in the future. Yet Safra, who grew up on a small kibbutz in Israel, knows that high-tech climate adaptation measures also have painful trade-offs.

“It’s a dilemma,” Safra told me, “that tension between mitigation and adaptation.” “We realized early on that we don’t have a solution to solving climate change on our own, but we can help bees survive. And it’s better to do something than nothing.”

This is correct. But it is not the complete answer. Ingenuity and investment must go equally well into reducing the environmental damage caused by climate change. For example, while automated hives offer an immediate solution, in the long term the industry must also focus on alternatives to using pesticides, better mitigating insect diseases, and improving crop diversity to provide richer nutrients for beneficial insect populations — and of course, reducing methane and greenhouse gas emissions. Other strong points are accelerating the phase-out of fossil fuels.

Mother Nature has spent millions of years creating the most efficient pollinators on the planet. We owe it to bees, if not for long-term human health and food security, to find ways to restore an environment in which they can thrive, rather than simply treating climate change as inevitable.

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