Indiana beekeepers turn to biology to save colonies

A rusty patched bumblebee. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Standing feet from around 250,000 bees, Ellie Symes spoke about the nearly 4.25 million more The Bee Corp. is in the process of acquiring. The fact that she is allergic earned a casual mention.

“I used to bee-keep in dresses,” Symes said, adding that she hadn’t always been allergic to the primary focus of her benefit corporation. “They don’t want to sting you because they know what it does.”

Symes, CEO of The Bee Corp., cares about bee survival rates on both the individual and the mass levels. Some beekeepers practice survival of the fittest to weed out genetic weaknesses, Symes said, but The Bee Corp. looks to guide survival rates by improving software and collecting data for hive health analysis. Sensors gauging a hive’s temperature, weight, humidity, acoustics and more already exist, but Symes said that data is just sitting there.

“We’re using the biology of the hive to help beekeepers,” Symes said. “It seems like common sense to me. If we don’t have bees, we don’t have one-third of our food. I love what we’re doing, and it’s a fun way to attack the problem.”

Since the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” was coined in 2007, average bee loss floated around 30 percent each year. In the past couple of years, Symes said that annual loss is closer for 40, 50 or even 60 percent. By aggregating data from partner companies’ hives and their own, The Bee Corp. hopes to bring that annual rate of bee loss down to around 10 to 15-percent.

The Bee Corp. started with Symes’ experience in beekeeping. As an undergraduate, Symes secured a grant from Indiana University’s Hutton Honors College to introduce student-run beehives to the university. That quickly grew into IU’s Beekeeping Club, which Symes started with The Bee Corp.’s COO Simon Kuntz and CMO Wyatt Wells.

In 2016, The Bee Corp. entered IU’s Building Entrepreneurs in Science & Technology, or BEST, competition. In pitching the business to 25 investors, The Bee Corp. won first place and an investment of $100,000. That initial seed money helped The Bee Corp. begin its journey as a benefit corporation.

“We’re not taxed any different; we are just allowed to pursue a social or environmental motivation in addition to the motivations of a private company,” Symes said. “We’re legally allowed to do good.”

The benefit corporation designation is currently available in 31 states and protects a company from its shareholders should it prioritize something like sustainable business cards over a more profit-friendly option. The designation also promotes transparency about the company’s public benefit, and as a result, The Bee Corp. publishes an annual benefit report detailing its stated goals of supporting beekeepers and safeguarding food security.

Economic sustainability continues to be a goal, though, and it can come in the form of grants and capital infusions. The Bee Corp. currently has four outstanding grant applications, and is in the middle of a funding round. The company’s intersection of technology and agriculture allows it to be nimble in seeking grants, meaning The Bee Corp. could receive environmental protection grants while also acquiring an Internet of Things grant.

“This is designed to get us to a point where we’re financially stable and growing,” Symes said.

Though The Bee Corp. is looking to monitor its own 90 hives, they’ve partnered with national and international companies to study mite and parasite prevalence, the impact of pesticides and how the density of a bee population in a given area might relate to the available forage opportunities.

Partner companies like BroodMinder and Arnia may have as many as 4,000 hives each, with an average of 50,000 bees per hive. While studying the commercial beekeeping industry is a larger goal, Symes said backyard beekeepers actually have taken to the new technology and helped act as guinea pigs for the data collection service available as a phone application.

“It’s really cool to be at this intersection of technology and the environment,” Symes said. “It’s really fun to be able to innovate and do good things for the world. We love to say that we’re doing good and doing well.”


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