Developing smart and rehabilitative beehives

Published: 24 March 2023

Text: Newslab

Photo: Angelique Culvin og Bjørn Dahle, Norges Birøkterlag

Frenchman Christophe Brod left the telecommunications industry and dove right into the beekeeping industry. Now he and Beefutures are ready to initiate a small revolution in beehives.

"I came to Norway in 1998, and my education is in engineering, but I grew up in a beekeeping family. So at some point in my career, I decided that I wanted to use my expertise for something more meaningful than telecom, something that can improve the world a bit. And bees were a natural challenge I wanted to tackle."

That's what Christophe Brod, CEO of Beefutures, says. The company is located in Oslo Science Park and has the overarching goal of saving both domesticated honeybees and wild bees. But how exactly do they do that, and what's wrong with the bees in the first place?

The answer to the latter question is as simple as it is difficult to solve: Varroa mites.

These parasites have specialized in honeybees and also carry viruses and diseases. Brod explains that in a beehive, the mites have exponential growth:

"The mite population will grow faster than the bees. 500 mites per 10,000 bees is already problematic, and at around 1000 mites, there is a risk of the bee population collapsing. This issue has been with us for a long time, but it has only increased over the last few decades," he says.

So what about the answer to the first question—what can be done? That's where Beefutures and Brod's innovations in beekeeping come into play.

Varroa mites are the bees' enemy—and therefore, also Beefutures' and Brod's enemy. Photo: Bjørn Dahle, Norwegian Beekeepers Association

Developing smart beehives with heat and monitoring

Specifically, Beefutures develops smart beehives to address the mite problem. According to Brod, chemicals have previously been used to try to combat the troublesome parasite, but this is not desirable for two reasons. Firstly, it can harm the bees, and secondly, it can render the honey unsuitable for human consumption. And if you wait until after the honey season to use chemicals, the hives are already full of mites.

"But the mites have become resistant to chemicals anyway," Brod explains.

"However, varroa mites don't tolerate heat very well. For example, they die on very hot summer days, and their heat tolerance is well-known. Therefore, we have developed new technology that heats up the hive to a level that the bees can tolerate and support while the mites die," he eagerly says.

At the same time, he emphasizes that even with heat treatment, it is not possible to completely eliminate the mites, and with a constantly warming planet and earlier springs, the mite's life cycle has been extended. The goal is not to eradicate the mites but to keep them in check at an acceptable level.

Perhaps Beefutures can produce honey directly from the Science Park in the future?

Moreover, it is not entirely new beehives that are the innovation. The product developed by Beefutures is called Onibi Base and is placed at the bottom of existing beehives. Therefore, the infrastructure is already in place for most beekeepers; it's not the entire hive that is replaced, only the beehive floor.

Onibi Base has both heating elements and sensors that can adjust and measure the hive's health and temperature as needed. There is also a corresponding app where the beekeeper can see how the bees are doing. They can measure changes in the sound and vibrations emitted by the bees.

"In addition to temperature, we can also measure frequency and sound shifts in the hive, and this can tell us something about the bees' condition—but it needs to be weighted based on the population," says Brod.

"Based on this, we can tell the beekeeper how much honey is in a hive, so she only opens the hives where there is actually honey to harvest. One goal of Onibi Base is to provide easier beekeeping but also fewer visits to the bees."

He elaborates:

"Bees use a tremendous amount of energy to maintain the hive's temperature, and since they are cold-blooded themselves, they have to vibrate to generate this heat—or transport water around the hive to cool it down. If you open the hive, as traditionally done to check honey and the hive's condition, it is incredibly destructive," he explains.

Thus, Onibi Base serves multiple purposes. It helps against mites, it makes the beekeeper's job easier, and it gives the bees peace to work on the honey without disturbances. Since the mites can also infect wild bees, the technology also helps wild bees while being used on honeybees.

This is what the Onibi Base looks like. It is placed at the bottom of existing hives.

Oslo Science Park functions as an important incubator

Like many other Norwegian startup companies, Beefutures was born and raised in Oslo Science Park, right next to the University of Oslo. Several of the university's institutes are also located in and around the park, and the academic community surrounding the startup companies is large and vibrant.

Brod says it was important for Beefutures to be affiliated with Oslo Science Park in the early stages:

"The premises are very nice, and you never feel alone in the environment here. It's great to be here, plain and simple."

Now the company is well-established with developers and testing in both Norway and France. But Brod says that the environment at the park was a great place to meet potential investors.

"The 'field testing' has mainly been in Norway with Norwegian beekeeping associations, which are also actual customers. We have also tested a bit in France, but only internally," says Brod, adding:

"The Science Park should have beehives on the roof and info screens showing bee data! That would make it even better to be here," he says with a smile.

"Electronics shortage during the pandemic was a big problem for us."

Beefutures was started in 2019, and Brod says they immediately encountered some enormous challenges—the COVID-19 pandemic and an existing global shortage of electronic components.

Established companies could prepare for a long time, but newly started Beefutures didn't have that opportunity. The shortage of electronic parts affected the development of their smart beehives. In fact, maybe even more so than for already established companies; a startup doesn't have the greatest weight on the scale, after all.

"The production of Onibi Base was delayed by a whole year," says Brod.

Unlike larger companies, little Beefutures couldn't secure themselves by obtaining large volumes of parts in advance—and in many cases, they didn't even know which parts they would actually need at the time.

"This was a big problem, especially because beekeeping is a seasonal profession, and this made the window for testing our product very narrow from the start. The technology we are creating, and bees as a whole, are very foreign to investors in Norway. It simply requires much more work and persuasion to raise capital."

Christophe Brod and Beefutures are located at Oslo Science Park, where they have received great assistance in starting the company.