Reducing bee losses with sensing software via AgriHQ

Below is an article on Sprout company Bee'z Thingz, written by Fiona Rotheram of AgriHQ.

Kiwi start-up Bee’z Thingz is raising money to fund development of a new Internet of Things technology that could help prevent the annual loss of 15% of New Zealand’s bee stock.

Julian McCurdy used to have a career in IT, developing websites and other IT support for New Zealand’s small to medium-sized companies.

Today he’s running his own SME that’s aiming to help NZ’s burgeoning manuka honey industry reduce bee stock losses through a new sensor technology that remotely monitors bee health within the hive.

His metamorphosis came six years ago after he reunited with his father, a hobby apiarist who had started a lifestyle business renting out beehives mainly to Auckland urbanites keen to collect fresh honey from their backyards.

Just back in NZ from his OE, McCurdy knew he didn’t want to return to a job in IT and soon developed a love for bees while riding in the truck with his father, learning on the job.

Four years ago his dad retired and McCurdy took over as managing director of the beehive rental and management business, Beezthingz, and used his IT expertise to develop software to manage the hives and customers.

“From that we developed a sensor device that plugs into the same software and manages and monitors hives remotely and the health of a colony,” McCurdy says.

  Peter Bennett, CTO, and Julian McCurdy, CEO and Founder of Bee'z Thingz showcase their IoT bee sensing software.

Peter Bennett, CTO, and Julian McCurdy, CEO and Founder of Bee'z Thingz showcase their IoT bee sensing software.

That’s seen it morph again from a bee retailing business to a software one that deals with bees, with the beehive management contracted out to several beekeepers nationwide.

Peter Bennett, the brains behind the sensor electronics, has been appointed as chief technical officer and he holds a 32.5% stake in the company while McCurdy has retained 62.5% pending dilution from a current $300,000 fundraising.

The Manawatu Investment Group (MIG) took a 5% stake last December and McCurdy says he’s raised a further $105,000 after presenting at NZ Trade and Enterprise’s agri-investment showcase last month and is confident of soon getting the remainder he’s seeking.

That follows the company being one of eight chosen last year for in the inaugural five-month Sprout agritech business accelerator programme run by Manawatu incubator BCC.

Each company got $20,000 in cash from a group of investors who could opt to convert that to equity post-programme, as MIG did.

McCurdy says the programme helped him understand what customers he had, what customers he wanted, what problems those customers had that needed fixing and whether he could make a viable commercial model out of that.

The result is the sensor that went on trial this week in two separate sites owned by commercial manuka honey producers in Hawke’s Bay to give commercial validity to his proof of concept.

The sensor allows the apiarist to remotely monitor whether the hive has started or stopped producing and the health of the bees, straight from a smart device.

The system is set-up so that it recognises any sign of diseases such as the varroa mite, which effectively wiped out NZ’s wild beehives in 2000, and can send an alert to the apiarist.

“Beehives are usually inspected on a schedule of going onsite every three weeks to a month and in that time a colony can get something wrong with it and die,” McCurdy says.

“This system allows, before they die, to alert them to prioritise a visit to that one.”

McCurdy hopes to start charging for pilot trials on other sites next March and to sell the sensors on a recurring revenue model of about $50 per hive annually.

While keen to help NZ’s thriving 250 commercial manuka honey producers, McCurdy’s ultimate goal is to sell to all beekeepers, including backyard hobbyists, and to export.

Bee losses are much higher in other countries – up to 42% annually in the United States and 40% in Europe, he says.

There’s about 575,000 beehives nationally at the moment and the nation’s honey exports rose 35% last year to $283 million on the back of higher prices for manuka, which is prized for its perceived health benefits.

That figure doesn’t include honey used as an ingredient in other products including skincare and medical wound dressings.

The industry and government goal is to boost exports to $1.1 billion annually by 2027.