Alan Aziz

Only Israel could create honey without bees

Scientists from the Startup Nation are solving the world’s environmental crises one at a time

September 22, 2022 12:04

At Rosh Hashanah we not only look back at the past year, we look to the future. And in doing that, sustainability has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Without making some swift, fundamental changes to the way we produce food, we’re paving the way for a future of increasing insecurity. Fortunately, in true Israeli style, many startups are working hard to combat this.

Let’s go back to that buzzword: Israel’s innovation in the way we treat bees and the honey industry.

In 2019, 12 Technion students from six different faculties won a gold medal in MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition for their development of vegan, bee-free honey. Replicating the protein from a synthetic bee’s stomach which — combined with plant nectar — produces honey, they succeeded in manipulating and reprogramming the required bacterium for the natural process in a lab.

Since then, the team (led, coincidentally, by a CEO and CTO both with the surname Dvash, meaning honey) has blossomed into a company, Bee-io. The result? Not only can they create different versions of honey from different plants — including, even, a coffee plant — but they can do so without compromising the wellbeing of bees.

That is a pretty big step in securing an environmentally-friendly future. Indeed, the bee population has been steadily declining in many parts of the world for many years — including Israel. And when you consider its brand name, you can appreciate why the Land of Milk and Honey is fighting so hard to change things, and managing to do it so successfully.

Israel’s 529 licensed beekeepers, tending to 120,000 hives, only produce around 3,500 tons of honey per year. Yet the average Israeli consumes 600 grams of honey, meaning there’s a shortfall of approximately 1,000 tons which must be imported.

Israel is a tiny country but, held up against the rest of the world, a devastating picture begins to emerge. Bees are tasked with pollinating more than 75 per cent of the world’s food crops and 35 per cent of global agricultural land, yet only seven out of the 20,000 species of bees are honey bees. This means they’re overworked, weakened and susceptible to viruses, which is killing them off.

Somewhat incredibly, Bee-io can produce three tonnes of honey each week and do so without harming a single bee.

Another Israeli startup, Beewise — also co-founded by a Technion graduate — created the world’s first autonomous beehive that can house up to 40 bee colonies (a total of two million bees) and take care of them using a robot-based solar-powered device. With the help of AI and computer vision, the app can then calculate necessary data, such as pollen flow, the amount of honey harvested and any problems as and when they arise. This ensures a far more efficient production than traditional methods which, requiring extensive manual labour, mean the beekeepers might only get to the hives once a week, leaving the bees susceptible to pests and disease.

The list goes on and on. Edete Precision Technologies offers a two-stage artificial pollination service that resembles the natural work of bees. BeeHero develops sensors to be installed inside hives to predict possible disorders and address their colonies’ health in real-time. ToBe developed the Hivemaster — an automated device that protects against the parasitic varroa mite, which infects honeybees with dangerous viruses.

And it’s not only honey that’s getting an environmentally-friendly makeover, either. At the end of last year, students from the Technion won first prize in the European Institute of Innovation & Technology Food Solutions Project for a vegan “labane” (a cheese-like spread) made from fermented oats and dietary fibre.

Meanwhile, another startup, Plantish, set up by yet more Technion graduates, decided to address the stark reality that we are simply running out of fish in the ocean. Globally, one million people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein and there’s a real fear that we may well empty the oceans in just a couple of decades. Somewhat remarkably, Plantish has managed to design a printer that successfully copies fish molecules using algae extract from plants. They have created a salmon filet — filled with omega-3s and, vitally, missing mercury, microplastics, antibiotics and cholesterol. And they’ve done so without using a single fish.

It may not be a new phenomenon, but it seems that we again have Israel to thank for saving the world, one incredible innovation at a time.

Alan Aziz is CEO of Technion UK

September 22, 2022 12:04

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