ApisProtect employs deep tech to help save the Earth’s bees

22 Apr 2019

ApisProtect CEO and co-founder Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy. Image: Claire Keogh

Today, on Earth Day (22 April), our Start-up of the Week is Cork-based ApisProtect which uses sensors to monitor the health of honey bee colonies.

“At ApisProtect, we use sensors to monitor honey bees in the hive,” explained ApisProtect co-founder and CEO Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy. “We collect temperature, humidity, CO2, sound and movement data from a single sensor unit installed inside the hive, called the ApisMonitor.”

In November, we reported that the Cork-based company was creating 25 new jobs after closing a seed round led by Finistere Ventures, Atlantic Bridge Capital, Radicle Growth, The Yield Lab and Enterprise Ireland. The company was listed by Siliconrepublic.com as one of 25 European IoT and hardware start-ups to watch in 2019.

‘Our mission at ApisProtect, is to save the bees, because if we don’t take action now, we’ll lose our most important insect ally’

“We collect data from beehives all over the world using a combination of different long-range networks to bring these data together on our servers. There, we use machine learning technology to process and convert overwhelming amounts of raw data into actual information a beekeeper can use.”

The market

A picture of a honey bee at work gathering nectar from a flower.

Image: ApisProtect

Contributing €153bn worth of pollination to the agri-food industry annually, honey bees play an essential role in global food production.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that 71 of the 100 most important crops, which provide 90pc of food worldwide, are pollinated by bees. One-third of all food that we eat depends on pollinators, and there are 91m managed beehives worldwide. However, many countries are experiencing extensive honey bee losses. In the US, commercial beekeepers reported losses of 38pc of their colonies in 2015-2016.

“Losses on this scale are dramatically reducing the profitability of beekeeping globally and driving beekeepers out of the industry, despite the growing demand for honey, pollination and other honey bee by-products throughout the world.

“Today on World Earth Day, the declining number of bees throughout the world is being highlighted and people are encouraged to do what they can to help save the bees. In Ireland alone, we have 98 different types of bee: the honey bee, 20 different bumblebees and 77 different solitary bees. We know that one-third of Irish bee species are threatened with extinction.”

The founders

Blonde-haired woman smiling and answering questions during a conference event.

ApisProtect CEO and co-founder Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy. Image: ApisProtect

Edwards Murphy is a graduate of University College Cork (UCC). “I finished my bachelor of electrical and electronic engineering in 2013 and then completed my PhD with the School of Engineering, and the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences in the area of internet of things applications for honey bee health.

“Throughout my career I have always been really interested in utilising technology to solve issues that have impacted on people’s daily lives. In 2012 and 2013, I saw how beekeepers all over the world were concerned about colony collapse disorder and how that affected bees and wondered if anyone had looked into putting sensors into beehives.

“A little bit of research showed there had been some work in the area but nothing extensive, so I decided to focus my PhD there. After discussing my PhD in a radio interview, beekeepers all over Ireland and internationally started getting in touch looking for this technology. I decided to start our company with my co-founders Dr Pádraig Whelan and Andrew Wood to see if we could bring this project to life.”

Whelan, chief science officer and co-founder of ApisProtect, is a former lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC. He was also the chief scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. Whelan is an expert beekeeper who has been involved with beekeeping in Ireland for over 15 years, and he is passionate about protecting honey bees and native plant species.

Andrew Wood, chair and co-founder, is an entrepreneur with decades of international commercial experience. He has led businesses in Europe, the US and the Middle East. He has raised venture capital and was group sales director of a successful $80m IPO on the London Stock Exchange.

The technology

The ApisMonitor unit is ApisProtect’s first technology solution, a sensor platform designed to be retrofitted into existing hives. The device uses a unique combination of sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, CO2, sound and acceleration.

These five on-board sensors provide the necessary data for machine learning and big data techniques to extract valuable information about hive condition, activities and productivity levels.

“Instead of expecting [beekeepers] to look through long graphs of temperature data, we simply send them an alert saying ‘these hives are sick’ or ‘this hive has no queen’. This allows beekeepers to use the beekeeping skills and knowledge they already possess in a much more effective manner. This actionable information lets us help commercial beekeepers to maximise pollination and honey yield.

“Our mission at ApisProtect, is to save the bees, because if we don’t take action now we’ll lose our most important insect ally,” Edwards Murphy explained.

In the past 12 months the company has rolled out its ApisMonitor units across Europe, North America and Africa and it is monitoring 10m honey bees foraging across 100,000 acres in 20 locations worldwide. It also opened its first US office at the Western Growers Association’s WG Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, California.

‘In Ireland, we have access to so many supports that aren’t available in other countries’

“We’ve dealt with all of the usual ups and downs of getting IoT hardware working in the real world and it has been pretty hectic at times travelling across the world installing our devices and meeting with growers and beekeepers,” Edwards Murphy said.

“We are really pleased with where we are now, and it is so rewarding to hear the positive feedback from our beekeepers. They are delighted to be able to monitor their apiaries in remote locations from their laptops and/or smartphones.

“Being part of the Irish start-up scene has been a great resource for us. Everyone is very supportive and genuinely interested in helping each other out, be that by sharing experiences, pointing out opportunities, or making a useful introduction.

“In Ireland, we also have access to so many supports that aren’t available in other countries, resources like the LEOs and Enterprise Ireland are fantastic for both getting your business off the ground in the first place, and then for scaling as quickly as possible once you get going.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years