A beekeeper Inspects activity around the BeeHero sensor, the small yellow device on the edge of the honeycomb.
A beekeeper Inspects activity around the BeeHero sensor, the small yellow device on the edge of the honeycomb.

In Palo Alto, this Israeli startup is saving bees from their death spiral

The bees are stressed out. This is bad news for the bees, and very bad news for the global food supply, which depends on bees to pollinate some 1,200 vital crops worldwide.

Stress isn’t the only problem facing honeybees. Commercial beekeepers for years have been rapidly losing colonies to mass die-offs or abandonment due to climate change, pesticide use, invasive insects such as mites and hornets, and other factors.

“In the United States, we lose 40 percent of all managed colonies every year,” said Barbara Bar-Imhoof, a bee health research specialist at UC Riverside. “Imagine the outcry if we were to lose 40 percent of all our cattle every year.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than one-third of the world’s food crops rely on pollinators, including more than 100 crops in the U.S.  — meaning that bees are among the smallest but most vital creatures linked to human survival.

BeeHero, a startup founded in Israel in 2017, is part of a multifaceted effort to slow or reverse this growing disaster. The company has developed technology that is helping beekeepers, farmers and researchers understand colony collapse disorder by using hive sensors that provide real-time data.

The company continues to do research and development in Israel but now has offices in Fresno and its headquarters in Palo Alto. That’s where CEO Omer Davidi recently showed a J. reporter how BeeHero’s mobile phone app taps into sensors that collect data from bee hives around the clock, from anywhere in the world.

Imagine the outcry if we were to lose 40 percent of all our cattle every year.

“Different threats on the colony will generate various stress patterns inside of the hive,” Davidi said. “Now we have transparency to see what happens inside colonies without opening every box to figure that out.”

The sensors track beehive temperature, humidity and sounds to determine bee colony health, productivity and even the mental states of bees. In recent years, entomologists such as Stephen Buchmann, author of “What a Bee Knows,” have concluded that bees can experience significant levels of stress that may play a role in colony collapse.

BeeHero is also providing data to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help combat the spread of invasive pests, including Asian giant hornets that can grow up to 2 inches long and murder a colony of bees within hours.

BeeHero co-founders Davidi, Yuval Regev, Michal Roizman and Itai Kanot started the company with 10 hives in a backyard in Israel. Of the four, Kanot had the most experience with bees. His father is one of the largest beekeepers in Israel, and he grew up around bees, beekeeping and honey harvesting.

BeeHero has grown to more than 60 employees in Israel and California and has raised $64 million in funding through venture capital investors and corporate funds from food industry giant General Mills.

The company said it now has about 220,000 sensors in use across the U.S with a small number scattered in other countries. According to BeeHero, the sensors cover hives that help pollinate more than 100,000 acres of crops, 6 million trees and 89 billion flowers.

Bees swarm around a BeeHero sensor that monitors their health and productivity.
Bees swarm around a BeeHero sensor that monitors their health and productivity.

According to vice president of global strategy Eytan Schwartz, the large commercial growers and beekeepers who are among BeeHero’s clients reported a 33 percent decrease in colony losses last year compared with the U.S. average. “So we already see the value of early detection and prediction reducing the absolute mortality,” Schwartz said.

One way that BeeHero’s sensors help is by ensuring that bees get a smooth ride to their “job sites” when they’re rented out to farmers for pollination season. Bees can get sick or die from overheating or rattling on their commute. BeeHero sensors can alert truck drivers that the colonies are overheating or that the ride is too bumpy, said Huw Evans, BeeHero’s head of innovation.

“We want to ensure that bees have a respectful ride,” he said.

BeeHero also wants to help standardize bee-friendly practices across the agricultural industry and hopes to create a consumer-facing label that can show foods were grown in a pollinator-safe environment. 

Davidi said the three main requirements for bee-friendly certification would be providing access to clean water for bees, supporting native plants to diversify bees’ food sources and avoiding the application of pesticides and herbicides while bees are actively in flight.

“I think if we look at it from a long-term perspective and we’re trying to create a more sustainable food system,” Davidi said, “then it’s a major step we need to adopt.”

Valerie Demicheva
Valerie Demicheva

Valerie Demicheva is a journalist and photographer whose work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Women's Wear Daily and Silicon Valley Magazine. She's covered culture, tech, media, restaurants and philanthropy in the Bay Area for over a decade.