words: Matthew Coyte
photography: James Betz-Gray

Most university students take up hobbies like tie dying, ping pong or learning how to play the guitar. In 2015, Marc-André Roberge, a then industrial and product design major at the Université de Montréal, discovered beekeeping.

“How bees interact within the hive, and how they interact with humans, that’s what really caught my eye,” says Roberge.

Marc-André Roberge, co-founder of Nectar, has been a beekeeper since 2015.

Fast-forward a couple of years to 2017. Roberge, joined by Xavier de Briey, an electrical engineering graduate from the École de technologie supérieure, founded Nectar, a company looking to change the way beekeepers interact with their hives.

Most beekeepers have between 24 to 100 hives per location. When it comes to mass-scale apiary, Nectar have clients with over 8,000 total hives. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Some members of the Nectar team, now eight strong, went down to California to help install their sensors and recall “miles and miles” of hives.

For the average beekeeper, there’s a daily routine to abide by. Most of it involves checking your hives thoroughly and often. Issues are only seen by the eye of the beekeeper once they get the chance to check in on the hive. Problems like an unhealthy, or dead, queen bee can have lasting negative effects on the hive if they aren’t caught quick enough. This can take up the majority of a beekeepers day, and in the end can cost them bees and money. This is the main issue that Nectar is looking to eliminate.

“Our sensors will pick up different things in the hive that will show that the queen is unhealthy,” says Roberge. “In our case, [the sensors] can detect that remotely, and then the beekeepers can fix the problem directly.”

Nectar’s technology extends across three pieces of hardware. The first being the sensors. These are placed directly in every hive. They detect things like temperature, humidity, movement, and even sound frequencies. Each type of bee – worker, drone and queen – emits a different frequency, and the sensor will be able to detect each one’s needs. The sensor is shaped in the form of a hexagon and is about the same size as a poker chip.

The sensors developed by Nectar. Each sensor gets placed in a hive where they collect data.

The sensors from each hive send their data to an external drive. Each hive will be equipped with a sensor. With each cluster of hives, there will only be one external drive. This device compiles and packages the data, then sends it back to Nectar’s office where they can analyze it. Nectar can then provide that data online, along with their suggestions, for the beekeeper to look at.

The data collected hopes to help beekeepers save on labour costs and time. Nectar’s product acts as a sort of triage system capable of pointing out the hives that need the most attention.

While there have been some beekeepers that are apprehensive of the technology, most of Nectar’s partners that have been helping test their products, welcome the technological changes.

The current external drives that are placed near the bee hives to send collected data back to Nectar.

“The folks who are most excited are young, entrepreneurial beekeepers who see themselves working in the industry for the next 40 years and are trying to find a way to make the job less labour intensive for themselves,” says Max Cherney, marketing manager at Nectar.

Beekeeping is an industry that has managed to stay pretty close to its roots as a practice and lifestyle. However, Rod Scarlett, the executive director of the Canadian Honey Council describes this resistance.

“Beekeeping has always been highlighted by its lack of technology,” says Scarlett. “We just got [indoor sheds] in the winter as being a technological advancement.”

Despite this, Scarlett says that commercial beekeepers are becoming more open to the positive technological impact this sort of tech can have on their business. When asked about Nectar and their idea to improve the efficiency at which beekeeping is performed, he only sees a way for beekeeping to break through its normal barriers. “Labour is the biggest issue for commercial beekeepers. Any method that’s out there that eliminates the need for labour is a huge advancement,” Scarlett explains.

Cherney sees that these beekeepers understand the added work that will go into incorporating this technology into their routine, but they see that the long-term benefits are worth it.

“Every beekeeper is unique and is great and special and weird,” says Roberge. “They take care of hives as a hobby and take care of insects that will sting them at some point.”

“I think that they’re all very passionate people. when we had the initial idea, we got a lot of people who wanted to try it out and see how it could help them better connect with their bees.”

The importance of keeping a healthy bee population has gained momentum online with hashtags like “#savethebees” being a popular Twitter thread. Bees pollinate our ecosystem helping to maintain the biological balance. Canada houses over 800 species of bees. One of the most common, the bumble bee, was given the endangered status in 2010. Nectar wants to support beekeepers by looking at the food system and the role bees play.

“By supporting beekeepers we can support the food system,” says Cherney. “I think that’s something that gets lost a lot when we’re not close to the agriculture system is the people who make it all work. If we don’t have the tireless work of these beekeepers pollinating crops than none of this is possible.”

In 2016, the Canadian government released a report that estimated that honey bees had an economic contribution ranging from $3.97 to $5.5 billion a year thanks to their pollination. Of Canada’s $223 million apple industry, pollination by bees hold a direct contribution that’s valued at $220 million. That same report shows that the number of bee colonies in Canada has steadily grown over the past five years, up to 750,000 colonies as of 2016.

Nectar hopes to replace their current drive with this sleeker, smaller model for their limited release this spring.

Bee health, labour, low honey prices. These are only some of the issues that Canadian beekeepers are faced with. In the prairies, beekeepers struggle getting their product to market. Quebec has the fourth lowest production value of honey amongst the provinces. Scarlett sees these issues as being the reason for the changing Canadian industry. “Beekeeping is not just about stationary hives. They’re moving colonies for pollination now,” says Scarlett. “There’s still work to be work out in the use of technology, but this is a step forward in technology.”

Nectar plans to do a limited release of their product later this spring for the beekeepers they’ve already partnered with. The company will then aim for a full release in 2020.

Nectar isn’t the first company to try this technology out, but they may have found themselves in a position to take full advantage of the market by focusing on building lasting relationships with beekeepers. While they make sure to stay involved locally in Montreal and Quebec, the province only accounts for about 3% of Canada’s almost 10,000 beekeepers. This is why Nectar expanded their reach to other provinces and even across the border to reach the greatest number of beekeepers.

“There’s real people behind these bees,” says Cherney. “If we can help make their work lives easier, than we can reach our goal of supporting the food system.”