bee wise With robots and AI, a “five-star hotel” to help honeybees

When honeybees check into the Beewise “five-star hotel,” they don’t want to check out. A robotic arm attends to their every need. Hungry, sick or hot? Artificial intelligence software tells the robot to administer nutrients or antibiotics, to harvest honey or crank up the AC inside the high-tech hive. The intensive care routine is designed to maximize the bees’ chance of survival and success against incredible odds, so they can continue to pollinate billions of acres of crops every year despite an overheating planet.

For decades, these crucial insects, which pollinate more than 75% of all fruits, vegetables and nuts cultivated worldwide, have been succumbing to severe human-caused stressors, including toxic pesticides, new diseases, and increasing heat. Beewise, a 4-year-old startup based in Oakland, California, offers a particularly inspiring example of how robotics and AI might radically slow and even reverse the global honeybee die-off.

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

Beewise is a testament to our human capacity to solve even the most intractable problems. By now we know we must adapt to climate change. shifting how and where we live, modifying how we grow food and preserving the delicate balance of the ecosystems we depend on. But all these coping measures raise another harrowing prospect. The more ingenious our adaptation tools, the more likely we are to avoid mitigating the core issues driving the crisis. We must do both.

Without a doubt, honeybees need our help now. The combined pressures of pesticides and disease along with crop monocultures that rob bees of essential nutrients and increasingly volatile weather have been driving Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that has been wiping out bee colonies at a rate of 25% to 30% a year for 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 die-off of commercial honeybee colonies.

While the demand for bees in farming has grown exponentially in recent decades, the infrastructure for commercial pollination has evolved very little. Those iconic wooden boxes filled with screens of honeycomb have been in use since the 1850s, and they’re still the industry standard for commercial beekeeping. Almost all the new technologies that have emerged in the past decade to help bees adapt to modern stressors essentially just add sensors and cameras to these old wooden boxes.

That’s 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 metal-clad, multilevel structures can hold up to 10 colonies. On top of tending to basic needs, the units can sense when pesticides have been sprayed in a neighboring field and battens down the hatches, sealing off the insects from potential chemical drift. So far, Beewise has raised $120 million and distributed 1,000 of its robotic hives to farms throughout California and Oregon. In four years, they have reduced the rate of collapse to less than 8% from 35% in the colonies they manage. They hope to shrink that to a 2% loss as their AI systems come to better understand the needs of the bees. With demand for their product far outpacing supply, they aim to have 10,000 units in fields by the end of 2024.

Safra’s robotic bee hives are also amassing a vast storehouse of data on bee behaviors, stressors and solutions that could be a substantial asset down the line. Yet Safra, who grew up on a small Kibbutz in Israel, realizes that high-tech climate adaptation measures also have painful trade-offs.

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

That’s true. But it’s not the whole answer. Equal ingenuity and investment should be poured into reducing the environmental damage causing climate change. For instance, while robotic beehives offer an immediate solution, longer term the industry should also be focused on alternatives to pesticide use, better mitigation of insect diseases, improvements in crop diversification to provide richer nutrients to beneficial insect populations — and of course, reducing emissions of methane and other potent greenhouse gases while accelerating the phase-out of fossil fuels.

Mother Nature spent millions of years creating the most efficient pollinator on the planet. We owe it to the bees, if not to long-term human health and food security, to find ways to restore to them an environment where they can thrive, instead of simply treating climate change as inevitable.

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