CEO of agtech company The Bee Corp, Ellie Symes, is serious about bees. Her technology takes the uncertainty out of pollination, allowing growers to make time-sensitive decisions sooner and eliminating guesswork with objective performance metrics. In this Q & A, she shares what The Bee Corp is all about, and how it’s changing the landscape for growers.
iSelect: What does The Bee Corp do?
Ellie Symes: Growers rent beehives to pollinate about a third of the food we eat. The Bee Corp offer an infrared image analysis tool that allows them to measure their pollination contract values and make decisions that protect yield.
How did the idea for The Bee Corp come about?
When I was still in school, I started volunteering for a beekeeper. Soon after, I started a university club and was encouraged to dream bigger. Myself and my co-founder wanted to know how technology could be used to help mitigate colony loss. Over the past few years we’ve learned that loss is complicated on a commercial scale. So, we’ve edited our business model, pivoting towards what we’re doing now.
We heard a lot about the colony loss and collapse five or six years ago. Is it accelerating, or are things changing?
Overall, honeybee populations are at a ten-year high. But, there are still hive health issues, and so the prices for growers to rent have skyrocketed. Right now, even though beekeepers can split hives to maintain population to meet the demand for pollination, they must charge the growers a lot more because they’re putting a lot more inputs into their hives to keep them alive. So, you heard about colony collapse and hive decline, but the health and the resulting instability in the pollination market is the main problem.
Does The Bee Corp make bees or beekeepers more efficient?
Our technology doesn’t make bees more efficient. Instead, it allows growers to more efficiently measure and estimate the actual value of the hives that will be provided for pollination. Growers realized when costs went up that if they’re going to spend a lot more money on beehives, they want to make sure that they’re getting what they paid for. So, they started hiring manual inspectors to open the hives and estimate colony size. Our business model uses infrared image analysis to replace that manual inspection process.
It seems like a lot of today’s agtech is yield focused, cost focused, or quality focus. What would you say The Bee Corp’s focus is?
I’d say it’s cost and yield focused. If pollination doesn’t go right for growers, then nothing else they do in the growing season matters. It’s crucial to get it right. We’ve heard this from our growers, which is why they want the peace of mind of an extra inspection; not just to make sure they’re getting what they’re paid for, but to make sure they’ve got the yield.
Over the next five years, do you plan to scale the product that you have now or expand into new markets?
We want to scale to new crop markets. We launched in the almond market in California and we’ll be layering additional crop markets for the next five years and beyond. It’s been very beneficial to be laser focused on one crop market thus far, which has allowed us to build a deep understanding of the dynamics of the market through our relationships with our customers.
There are a lot of crops that need bees for pollination and a lot of markets that we can expand into, which is what we plan to do.