Think of bees and most people think of honey. Yet the insects are behind many more foodstuffs than that. In fact, almost all of the crops eaten by humans — some 80 percent — benefit from pollination by bees, from apples to oil seed rape. That’s around one third of our food.
So the fact that bees are dying is no small concern. The use of pesticides, especially insecticides such as neonicotinoids, is hammering bee populations across the world. This is making the business of beekeeping a whole lot more important.
Today, farmers rely on the help of about 130,000 beekeepers and their 870,000 bee colonies to keep the harvests coming. The hives are rented by farmers and then moved on to fields anew once pollination has been completed. It’s big business, and one Hamburg startup is hoping to cash in while helping to conserve the insects at the same time.
BEEsharing is an online platform that connects farmers and beekeepers in German-speaking countries. Farmers pay €40 to €80 per beehive for 14 days, with beekeepers receiving up to €50 depending on the crop. For a fee, BEEsharing takes care of transporting the bees and administrative extras.
To pollinate about 40 hectares of apple trees, it takes up to 100 bee colonies. Nils Gerber, co-founder, BEEsharing
"Farmers usually think of fertilizers and crop protection if they want to increase their harvest," said Nils Gerber, a 28 year old who founded the firm with former bankers Otmar Trenk and Wolfgang Reuter. "But optimal pollination can increase yield significantly - up to 60 percent for apples and cherries, for example."
The firm launched last year, and now around 330 beekeepers with some 7,000 bee colonies and almost 100 farmers are registered. "We only deliver bees within a radius of 150 kilometers in order to minimize the stress during transport and to prevent the spread of diseases," said Mr. Gerber.
BEEsharing started as a non-profit association with a focus on conservation, in particular protecting bees from pesticides. "A cocktail of pesticides can be found in bee pollen," said Barbara Löwer of the German Beekeeping Association. The chemicals make the bees ill or disorientate them, one of the reasons the EU this week voted to ban the use of the worst offenders, called neonicotinoids. Hives are also being decimated by diseases caused by the American foulbrood bacteria and Varroa mite.
The insects’ loss is also the economy’s loss. "Bees are systemically important," Julia Klöckner, the new agriculture minister has said. "What is harmful to bees must be eradicated. Otherwise, everything else will soon be gone."
But the BEEsharing founders quickly discovered that it wasn’t easy to attract funding for conservation, so in 2016 turned their organization into a business. It was a sensible move. "To pollinate about 40 hectares of apple trees, it takes up to 100 bee colonies," said Mr. Gerber, who is a certified pollination beekeeper. That means lots of bee deals, not to mention the fact that German-produced honey only meets 20 percent of domestic demand.
As a result, the market is buzzing with rivals. Martin and Mark Poreda, founders of the employer evaluation portal Kununu, will launch Hektar Nektar in Vienna this spring as a sort of Amazon for bee trading. Meanwhile, the platforms Bienenwanderung und Mein Bienenstand of Lower Saxony's Chamber of Agriculture focus on pollination.
Back in Hamburg, BEEsharing is not losing sight of its conservation roots. It is crowdfunding money for a bee info center in an old shipping container and hopes that by the summer it will be home to one million bees. "We are unaware of how much our survival depends on them," said Mr. Gerber.
Katrin Terpitz covers companies and markets at Handelsblatt, focusing on Germany’s Mittelstand and family-owned businesses. Stephanie Ott is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]