Understanding the secret life of bees

This is the story of an Irish entrepreneur on a mission to save the planet’s bees.

Ireland has long valued the hive and the honey bee – as evidenced in the Bechbretha or ‘Bee Judgements’ texts, recorded under Brehon law, dating back to circa the 6th Century. Today, an Irish startup seeks to write a new page in beekeeping history.

ApisProtect, a business co-founded by Fiona Edwards Murphy is focused on the growing global problem of the stressed honey bee population. Here, Murphy talks about her idea and her journey of discovery into the secret lives of bees.

apis save the bees

Light bulb moment

From my studies, I had gained some insight into the world of beekeeping. Annual hive losses run up to a startling 50%, for some of the 81 million hives. Around that time, I had won an international IEEE/IBM award and was invited to speak on Morning Ireland about the award and the sensor possibilities that could benefit beekeeping. Post interview, I was inundated with phone calls from beekeepers, at home and abroad, saying, ‘I would love to have these sensors in my beehive’.

“Worldwide there are 91 million beehives and roughly 45 million beekeepers.”

The sting in the tail

There is a tremendous amount of beekeeping research taking place all over the world; unfortunately, it’s failing to translate into solutions to save the bees.

I set out to design a technological solution with a commercial application for beekeepers. Since then, we have developed a sophisticated platform with temperature, humidity, (Co2) and accelerometer sensors within it. The information produced is collected, and machine learning is then used to interpret the data.

“Your hives are too hot or too cold.”

What are beekeepers’ main concerns?

Beekeepers are not concerned about the data or the technology but are interested in solving their beehive problems. Such as, ‘Are my bees healthy – am I getting the maximum productivity from them – is there anything I can do to increase it?’

Giving beekeepers practical tips

With machine learning, we turn all those parameters back into valid information, allowing us to share smart insights in real time with the beekeeper – e.g. ‘Your hives are too hot or too cold’.

It’s all about providing practical beekeeping tips in real time, not just giving them a stream of data.

“Vast numbers of bees are lost to straight-forward problems like starvation.”

What issues affect global bee populations the most?

It’s not a question that anyone can plainly. Every single country across the world collects data about their beehives – unfortunately, all in a completely different way.

Vast numbers of bees are lost to straight-forward problems like starvation, queen problems, or overheating – but are also lost to complicated issues like, ‘colony collapse disorder’ in the U.S. and worldwide with the parasitic Varroa mite.

“We use ground-breaking science and technology, to help our most important little friends.”

The beekeeping market is huge

Our tagline is ‘Science-driven healthy bees’. We use ground-breaking science and technology, to help our most important little friends. The U.S. is our most significant target market, followed by Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Our route to market is through beekeeping groups, federations and hive makers. Worldwide there are 91 million beehives and roughly 45 million beekeepers, and the international honey industry and pollination markets are valued at €3 billion and €1 billion respectively.

“There’s an annual subscription for the beekeeper, allowing access to the essential data from our hardware application.”

Helping bees around the world

We are building up and collecting our global database of honey bee information. At the moment, we are in phase two of our rollout, deploying 200 units or sensor boxes, destined for 200 ApisProtect beehives, with 15 specially selected beekeepers. It is made up a variety of different beekeepers spanning research, pollinators and commercial producers spread across the globe from Ireland, the UK, France, Romania, South Africa and the USA.

This is just the start

It’s a massive logistical operation, with the primary focus to get a full beekeeping season of data, from these selected beekeepers. We will then be in a position to know how accurate we can be; which diseases we can detect; and to what accuracy. Then once we go public, we can say how much you can increase your honey output; your pollination output; and which diseases we can eliminate for you.

“We aim to be the most significant beekeeping monitoring service in the world.”

save the bees

How do we make money?

We have won some accolades in recent years and were also delighted to have been awarded a Bank of Ireland/IGNITE Business of the Year in 2017. All these events have helped immeasurably towards defining and refining our business model. Our revenue model is based on the ‘platform as a service’ model. There’s an annual subscription for the beekeeper, allowing access to the essential data from our hardware application. We also differentiate our offering in the marketplace by deploying machine learning and concentrating on the needs and requirements of large scale beekeepers.

We are entirely commercially focused and in five years’ time my aim, and that of our chairman, Andrew Wood, is to be the most significant beekeeping monitoring service in the world. The objective is to build a solid reputation for ApisProtect with actionable insights and that you as the beekeeper know, are scientifically based – and above all, valid and correct.

Interview by Brendan Byrne.