Growing Ideas: Data drives thriving hives

Nectar’s in-hive sensors boost beekeeper productivity

A third of the world’s food crops depends on pollination. So it’s no surprise that Nectar, a start-up whose precision technology helps beekeepers make better decisions, is creating a bit of a buzz.

Montreal-based start-up Nectar is helping beekeepers “enhance the capabilities they already have,” as co-founder Marc-André Roberge puts it. It all started when Roberge was studying Industrial Design at university four years ago and he stumbled, or bumbled, upon beekeeping. “I was doing voluntary work, taking care of about eight beehives. To keep the bees healthy I basically had to guess what they needed. Wouldn’t it be great if my bees could tell me what to do? I thought.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if my bees could tell me what to do?”

- Marc-André Roberge, Nectar

Global interest

Fast forward to 2018 and Roberge has not only found a way to give the bees a voice, but he’s got the global beekeeping community buzzing too. After three years of piloting in-hive sensors that relay data-driven insights to beekeepers, Nectar is taking the product to market in March 2019. “I don't really know how everyone’s heard of us,” he says, “but we’ve had interest from South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.”

The first step on his journey was to speak to beekeepers, and he always got the same reaction: “We lose almost half our bees each year. There are so many contributing factors, it’s hard to know which to tackle when.”

That uncertainty can lead to mismanagement. Roberge came up with the idea of a sensor and looked for people with complementary talents to develop the algorithms, hardware and analytics. In 2016, co-founder Xavier de Briey came on board and within a week they had their first beehive connected.

Connected hives: “The data is sent to our cloud and the findings are sent to the beekeeper.” Photos: Carl Atiyeh

Pollination services

They initially piloted the sensors with beekeepers in the Montreal area. By 2017 the entrepreneurs had spread their wings to include commercial beekeepers, who sell their pollination services to crop growers. This year Nectar is onboarding the crop growers as clients too. They’ve got much of Canada covered and are currently working on contracts in the US.

So how does it work? “The sensor picks up direct data like temperature and humidity, as well as indirect data such as sound frequencies – how the bees ‘talk’ to each other – and the weight of the hive. This all gives us an idea of how healthy the bees are. The data is sent to our cloud, analyzed and the findings are sent to the beekeeper.”

“By keeping bees healthy, crop growers can optimize pollination”

- Marc-André Roberge, Nectar

A lot of time in the field

Roberge is keen to stress that these beekeepers often have twenty or thirty years’ experience. “We're not going to tell them what to do, but the insights we provide can help them make better decisions.” Nectar spends a lot of time on the field, on the phone and at trade fairs so they know their solutions will fit into beekeepers’ current operations. “Otherwise it will just be a gadget. It needs to add real value.”

Roberge says Nectar can raise gross profits on a single hive from 300 to 400 dollars a year. As well as reducing beekeepers’ operational costs, boosting productivity and helping their (healthier) bees live longer, Nectar is making a significant contribution to food security too. “A third of the food we grow depends on pollination, so by ensuring beekeepers are doing the best they can to keep bees healthy, crop growers can optimize the pollination of their crops.”

It’s a sweet solution to a sticky problem.

Nectar won the People's Choice Award at FoodBytes! Montreal 2018. They will be presenting at Rabobank’s annual Food & Agribusiness Summit in New York in November this year.

FoodBytes! is a Rabobank initiative connecting agrifood start-ups with industry leaders and investors. The next FoodBytes! pitch competition & networking event heads to New York City on October 18, 2018. Learn more and get your tickets here.

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in these sectors.