Beekeeping goes digital

2017-05-21 06:00 - Lyse Comins
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Durban - A KwaZulu-Natal beekeeper is bringing the fourth industrial revolution to the ancient art of beekeeping, with plans to use technology to uplift emerging black beekeepers.

With a shortage of bees and huge demand for honey and pollination services, the online and mobile app that beekeeper Nicky Worthman is developing comes at an opportune time for an industry that needs to grow to meet domestic demand and potentially revive exports.

The south coast beekeeper has tended bees since the age of 15 and her husband’s family has kept bees on their farm, Beedale, in rural Ramsgate just south of Margate, since the late 1800s.

“Our forefathers recognised that crops need to be pollinated and started keeping bees to help. Back then access to the shops was via ox wagon and took three days, so home-produced honey was an essential ingredient in the kitchen and a wonderful treat,” Worthman said.

As a child, Worthman’s husband, Shaun, learned to farm bees with his grandfather and sold honey to assist with paying his university fees.

Worthman now manages the family’s collection of beehives.

“When I was 15, I became involved in removing the honey combs from the hives – which can be quite scary and not for the faint of heart – tending to the hives, taking the combs to the house, decapping, spinning, cleaning, processing, bottling and selling the honey. This is a labour of love,” she said.

The beekeeper recognised the potential to expand the family’s small collection of beehives, given the huge demand for raw honey, but had no illusions about the difficulties of bee farming.

She also realised the ancient art was not immune to the disruption of the fourth industrial revolution that other industries such as the taxi and hospitality sectors had experienced with the rise of Uber and Airbnb.

“The great news was that an Australian families’ innovation, the flow hive, started a shift in the bee industry, and others across the world have taken notice. I bought a flow hive and it’s in its first year of operation, but this is only the first step. I plan to take bee farming into the digital age,” she said.

Worthman was recently awarded R500 000 in seed funding from the Technology and Innovation Agency via Durban’s SmartXchange hub for her innovation that will enable beekeepers to access their businesses, hives and markets via the Beedale web portal and mobile app.

“Beedale is designed to help bee farmers keep very good and practical record of their hives, assist with tracking production, pests and diseases. It will also link both large and small farmers with commercial buyers. While the Beedale software is relevant for all hives, our Smart Hive innovation will send a message when a hive is ready for harvest and let farmers know that a buyer is ready to purchase at a fair price,” Worthman said.

This would make it possible for small farmers to get their product to food companies as there were many barriers to entry such as stringent labelling and barcode requirements and the need for professional branding to access supermarket shelves directly.

She plans to launch the innovations commercially in February 2018.

“We are still a bit secretive while under development about our exact method to market but we plan to initially market locally and expand globally soon thereafter. We have agreement from a bee farmer in Germany to run trials on his hives in 2018,” she said.

SA Bee Industry Organisation committee member and chairperson of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association Danie Vorster said the industry faced several challenges. One was that farmers needed big quantities of honey to be able to sell to major supermarkets.

“Keeping stock through the year is expensive. In dry conditions there is no honey available and payment terms are not beneficial. Big supermarket’s terms can go up to 90 days after invoice,” he said.

He said Worthman’s innovation could potentially solve some of these problems, although small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would need access to sufficient data.

Worthman has also partnered with the Small Enterprise Development Agency and SmartXchange to develop economically sound emerging bee farmers and gear off her innovation. She is also scouting for corporates who have land farmers and could use for hives.

Worthman also has plans to launch a project called “adopt a hive” where buyers can purchase a hive to be farmed by an emerging SME, monitor it, interact with the farmer on their smart phone and share
in the proceeds.

“Imagine owning part of a bee hive, tasting your own honey without the risk of working with the bees, all while supporting our youth and reducing unemployment,” she said.

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