A land flowing with artificial honey

Siblings Ofir and Efrat Dvash  credit: Eyal Izhar
Siblings Ofir and Efrat Dvash credit: Eyal Izhar

Israeli family foodtech company Bee-io seeks to save the bees we need from extinction while producing the pure honey we crave.

When Efrat and Ofir Dvash were children in Moshav Hatzav in Israel's south, their father grew tomatoes in the family greenhouse. The siblings had a special role: they were the bees. Because the tomatoes were being raised in a closed, humid greenhouse, there was nothing to pollinate the flowers and induce growth. So, brother and sister would run through the rows and shake the plants.

Today, some three decades later, they have taken this childhood pastime countless steps forward. In a small Rehovot Science Park laboratory, the siblings are working on an innovative solution: "cultured" honey, developed in the lab, with no need for bees at all. Honey that will restore some of the ecological balance to the bee population, address increased consumer demand for honey, and produce a better quality product for human consumption.

"Our honey is a real superfood," explains Efrat Dvash-Riesenfeld (40). "When bees collect nectar, they bring large quantities of pesticides into the hive, and eventually to us, the consumers. Our product won't have these things."

"We want to accurately mimic the process that happens in nature and take the bee out of the equation," adds Ofir (35). "Technologies have improved since we were kids doing the bee's work in the greenhouse. We were never as industrious as they are, but we do have good childhood memories. Today, we'd like to do them a favor by restoring ecological balance to this world, while producing economic value at the same time."

The childhood dream began coming true about a year ago, when a group of entrepreneurs, led by Arik Kaufman, among the founders of foodtech companies Meat Tech and BioMilk, presented the idea to Ofir, then VP Technology at startup incubator GKI Group.

"A mutual friend who was familiar with my activity as a person responsible for founding several start-ups and developing various products, introduced me to Arik, a serial foodtech entrepreneur who had an idea for an innovation-based company," says Ofir. "The connection between us was immediate. I fell in love with the idea and dived right in. I understood the processes that needed to be done."

Ofir, who served in the prestigious special operations technology unit, IDF Unit 81, decided to go for it, and recruited his food technologist-biotechnologist sister Efrat, a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Postdoctoral Fellow (metabolism and immunology) from Harvard Medical School. Together they founded Bee-io.

This month, Bee-io merged with public company Whitestone Group, and began to be traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange at a NIS 38 million market cap. Before that, the company had raised more than NIS 8 million in one round from investors such as Adi Zim, Rani Zim, S.R. Accord, Extra Holding (controlled by Moti Ben Moshe), Meat Tech CEO Sharon Fima and founders Arik Kaufman and Yaron Kaiser, owners of BioMilk.

"There is an explosion in demand"

Who even needs cultured honey? In recent years the demand for honey products has been steadily rising. In 2020, the global honey market was estimated at $9.21 billion, and it is expected to grow by 8.2% per year, according to Grand View Research. This growing popularity is the result of increased awareness of honey's benefits and the desire to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Honey has a long-standing reputation as a source of vitamins and antioxidants, and is known for its efficacy in improving metabolic activity, and helping to heal burns. The growing demand for premium products also contributes to the increase in demand for honey, as it is used in industries such as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

In Israel alone, demand is high. According to the Knesset Information and Research Center, honey consumption in recent years stands at about 4,000 tonnes, which compares with a domestic output of about 3,000 tonnes in 2015, for example, with massive importation filling the gap. "It's an explosion," says Ofir. "Without a technological solution, the demand can't be met. The price will increase, and so will the environmental damage. We will produce honey that will be available year-round, no matter the season."

The environmental damage Ofir refers to is not just from honey production, but a problem that has been troubling the scientific community for decades. In recent decades, around the world, tens of billions of bees have disappeared. In fact, since the early 1980s there has been a sharp decline of more than 50% in the bee population, but in 2006 beekeepers began to notice whole hives being abandoned completely. About a year ago, bees joined the list of endangered species.

It's hard to imagine a world without bees. Apart from the honey they alone provide - at least so far - they are responsible for pollination, which is critical for our food chain, as many crops are unable to reproduce on their own. Bees are responsible for 75% of plant fertilization in nature and agriculture; 40% of the foods we consume require their services.

Their disappearance could lead to a sharp decline in crops and from there severe economic damage to farmers, and a worldwide shortage of various foods made from fruits and vegetables. Lemons, apples, melons, cherries, onions, strawberries, sunflowers - even rapeseed (the plant used to make canola oil for the food industry that is also an ingredient in fuel) - are just a few of the foods we commonly consume. The bee crisis may create a significant upheaval to this list. Bees are also responsible for the survival of wildflowers. Pollinating bees also support plants used in textiles and medicines.

No single factor accounts for the disappearance of bees. Scientists see several causes, including increased use of pesticides in agriculture, poor nutrition of bees due to a decrease in flowering plants or a reliance on monoculture (agriculture that relies on one type of crop), global warming, habitat destruction due to the construction boom, and even cellular radiation.

Add to all this the role of bees in service of industrialized economic systems: our need for bees caused humans to cultivate selected species for commercial use, set up more and more hives, breed on a massive scale , and in effect imprison the honeybees.

"20 years ago the United States produced 70% of its honey. Today, it imports 70%," says Efrat. "Farmers move hives from place to place according to the flowering season. They load hives on trucks and move them from field to field in different states, to do the pollination work efficiently, according to the required location. The result is that if a hive in California is infected, it transmits viruses across the continent and harms local populations. This interference has shortened the bees' lifespan. If we continue to rely on animals for our food production, in the end, we'll be harmed. "

Moreover, although there are about 20,000 species in the wild, humans have chosen to domesticate the western honeybee, as it meets our needs most efficiently: its colonies number in the tens of thousands, it survives the winter, and can fly carrying its own bodyweight in nectar. Honeybees help produce crops worth $20 billion a year in the United States alone, and support $200 billion in food production worldwide. In Israel, agricultural production dependent on bee pollination is about NIS 2.5 billion a year.

Studies from around the world, including Israel, have found that honeybees will drive away the wild bees within a radius of about a kilometer and a half around the hive. The wild bees cannot compete for pollen resources - and their numbers decrease. The closer a wild bee habitat is to a commercial hive, the smaller their number and diversity, and the less likely they are to produce offspring.

This loss is devastating to both nature and man, as honeybees do not pollinate all plant species effectively. Honeybees can also transmit diseases and parasites to wild bees, and their high concentration has a negative effect on the fertilization rate of some wild plants. For example, in coffee plantations in Mexico, a decrease in the variety of wild bees was observed in tandem with the increase in honeybee population density, and coffee fruit production decreased accordingly.

This is exactly why Bee-io wants to develop cultured honey: apart from the ability to increase production of high-value commodities, meet the great demand, possibly produce a pure, pesticide-free honey - the bees themselves will be removed from the equation. They will be set free and the natural ecological balance will be restored, to some extent.

"On demand, regardless of season"

Efrat and Ofir are developing an artificial bee stomach that mimics the enzymatic activity and all the conditions that occur during the bee's journey from flower to hive.

Unlike cultured meat, this is not a honey cultivated in laboratory conditions. The company simulates the entire process as it happens in nature, from the production of nectar to the production of honey. The process itself has no need for living bee cells. Rather, it mimics the biological processes that take place within the body. To date, Bio-io has filed two patents supporting its technological developments: one for an artificial bee stomach; the other, a technology that enables large-scale production of nectar from flowers and other plant sources. This nectar is transferred to the artificial bee stomach, where it is processed into pure honey.

"When a bee flies out," says Efrat, "it gathers nectar from flowers, which moves to the stomach. During the flight back to the hive, the enzymatic process begins, in which disaccharides are broken down into monosaccharides, and some glucose molecules undergo oxidation. When they get to the hive, the bees transfer the nectar from mouth to mouth, which increases the secretion of enzymes into the nectar and accelerates its conversion to honey. To achieve the desired viscosity, the bee brings the liquid up to its mouth-part, and holds it while fluttering its wings to evaporate it partially. The honey is then stored in honeycombs, where it is sealed and preserved. "

Efrat says the technology they are developing allows them to mimic all of these complex processes for obtaining honey that is identical in its properties to pure natural honey - "at the microscopic level".

"As it's produced from nectar," she explains, "the cultured honey retains the health benefits, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Also, with the transition to cultured honey, the production period is expected to be continuous, inexpensive, large-scale, on-demand, and year-round, independently of the season."

Efrat notes that some honey products currently on the market are based on sugar solutions, and therefore do not provide the health benefits of pure honey (vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, pesticide-free), nor do they mimic the taste, texture, smell and appearance of pure honey. "The specification of our honey will be determined by market demands," they say, "providing a range of varieties - eucalyptus, citrus, manuka. We have the ability to control the taste, type, and aroma."

They further maintain that, even when it comes to the real thing, when buying honey at the supermarket we don't always know what we're getting. "When we buy a jar, we don't always know if it has the good ingredients we hope for. Manufacturers do all sorts of things to maintain profitability. Only 50% of them have Israel Honey Board certification, meaning 50% of the honey doesn't undergo inspection in Israel. And the global situation is even more problematic.

"And because there is a huge demand for honey, the motivation to replace bee activity is high. In nature, the bee flies to the flower and brings nectar back to the hive. Today, in some cases, sugar syrup is placed next to the hive, and sugar is much worse for bee health. The good values that human being have sought in honey since time immemorial are disappearing."

However, focusing on this coveted luxury product may mean that we miss the bigger picture: the fight against the climate crisis affecting the bee population, taking measures like reducing the chemicals used in agriculture, preserving open spaces, and reforesting the urban environment.

"You can stop eating honey, and that would restore some environmental balance," agrees Efrat. "But human demand for high-quality products drives us to utilize honeybees more and more. We make them multiply and increase the number of hives, creating an imbalance. Our appetite grows, our needs grow. Our Bee-io solution will enable humans to maintain quality of life without giving up honey and without harming the environment.

"Endangered bees are a serious problem. We need to break this cycle and restore balance. Bees are an organism that mirror what's happening to our earth, and we have to protect them. They're sensitive to changes humans make. Water pollution will harm the bees. Air pollution will harm the bees. Contagious viruses will harm the bees."

"Instead of trying a different way," says Ofir, "humans try building more hives, selecting specific varieties, and don't take the other pollinators into account. We think we can cut the connection between human nutrition and beehives, allow local pollinators revert to the ecological status quo ante, and transform honey production into something not dependent on bees. If we sever these ties, people will start thinking in a more balanced way that will encourage local pollinators."

Closing a family circle

Although Bee-io is just starting out, it hopes to launch its innovative foodtech initiative in a significant way next year. "We're already in contact with the biggest companies in the food industry," says Ofir. "Companies understand that the honey market is going to change thanks to our technology. They understand the huge potential of integrating it into their factory production lines."

The Dvash siblings also feel their joint development closes a family circle. "We grew up on a farm," says Efrat. "Our father is a technological farmer. He was one of the first farmers to introduce greenhouses, and to this day is interested in integrating technology with agriculture. We've developed tomato varieties in our greenhouses, we have a machine he built to streamline the onion packing and cleaning process. Today, if you don't use sophisticated farming methods, it's very hard to succeed."

Efrat and Ofir Dvash

"We're very connected to nature and sustainability, to producing things ourselves. We understand the value of how things are connected, we know how to appreciate what nature has given us, and we want to preserve it. We have an opportunity to do something important for sustainability. We've seen nature undergo changes right before our eyes, we've learned to recognize its importance, and now we're trying to do our part. We want to know that we've done something commercial that's also valuable for the world. We want entrepreneurs to see that it is possible to do business with value."

When will we see your product on the shelves?

"We're in virgin territory today, but progressing rapidly. We see ourselves producing honey within the next few years. Looking at the cultured meat and dairy industries - the time it will take from development to product launch will be far shorter.

"Israel is a country with an extensive agricultural sector, and an important high-tech industry and science sector. It's a very special combination that allows us to mobilize minds quickly to work closely together, and to cooperate with academic institutions in a way that advances us, and positions us as world leaders. We also believe we have the ability to produce honey at a lower price than the current market price. Our entry will prevent prices from rising, and will put a healthy, controlled, clean, and environmentally friendly product on the shelf."

How honeybees drove away wild bees

There are over 1,100 species of wild bees in Israel. They do not live in hives and do not produce honey. Their nests are sometimes located in the ground or on trees, and not all of them are social creatures. However, their ecological role is critical: they are very effective in pollinating flowers, as opposed to honeybees, which do not pollinate a large number of wild plants effectively.

However, because humans chose to domesticate and breed the honeybee, who serves as a loyal worker in the food production industry, the wild bee has been pushed out of the field. It cannot compete for pollination resources - and its population is dwindling.

The bumblebee, for example, which is a wild species, is very important to the ecosystem, as it pollinates by fluttering its wings and buzzing with extraordinary intensity. In this way, it disperses pollen very efficiently to support the growth of cranberries, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, and more. However, bumblebees are critically endangered, their numbers having dropped by about 87% over two decades.

According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, many natural areas, including protected areas such as nature reserves and national parks, are under heavy pressure from foraging honeybees. Their intensive foraging threatens biodiversity and natural pollinators. As it is impossible to fence off a natural area - where wild bees are supposed to be protected - to prevent honeybees from entering (unlike cattle pastures for example), they have to deal with commercial honeybees that come in huge numbers from hives placed outside the reserve.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 10, 2021

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Siblings Ofir and Efrat Dvash  credit: Eyal Izhar
Siblings Ofir and Efrat Dvash credit: Eyal Izhar
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