March 6, 2024

Save the Bees: Harvesting Insights from our Deep Dive into Pollination Tech 

Pollinators are essential to the food system, but modern agricultural practices threaten wild pollinators and domesticated honeybees alike. Innovative startups are addressing this with smart technologies in an attempt to guarantee our future food supply. But do any of these innovations hold promise? We did a deep dive to find out. Read on for some more background information, three insights from our research, and our thoughts on the future of pollination. 


The Birds and the Bees

In order for a flower to produce a seed (and the fruit that surrounds it), it usually needs to mate with another flower. Since plants have a hard time moving around to visit other plants, this fertilization has to occur across physical distances and with some assistance. To solve this, plants have evolved to attract pollinators such as insects, who come for sweet nectar and leave loaded with pollen that they deposit on the next flower they visit. But this essential symbiotic relationship between plants and pollinators is under threat. One analysis showed that more than 50% of native bee species in North America and Hawaii are declining, and another 24% are in serious peril (Center for Biological Diversity). And because an estimated 35% of food crops require animal assistance for pollination, our food system is under threat as well (USDA).

Pollination Today

Because so much is at stake, farmers are rarely willing to leave pollination up to chance. This led to the domestication of the western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera), potentially as far back as 2600 BCE (Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity). More recently, we’ve seen the rise of the pollination services industry. In the US, there are approximately 115,000-125,000 beekeepers, most of whom are hobbyists, but 1,600 are commercial beekeepers and responsible for 60% of honey production (AgMRC). Most of these beekeepers supplement revenue from honey production with pollination services: transporting honeybees around the country to pollinate orchards and fields during pollination windows. 

However, these managed pollinators face similar threats to the wild pollinators: pesticides and crop monocultures negatively affect bee health, sometimes killing them outright and often making them susceptible to pests and mites that can decimate colonies. Beekeepers also struggle with Colony Collapse Disorder, in which healthy bees simply abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen with young and weak workers. 

Pollination Tech

Pollinator decline is a serious threat to our food system: it could contribute to 5-10% or greater declines in food production, especially of high-income crops like coffee, cocoa, fruits, and nuts (Our World in Data). Innovators in the Pollination Tech segment seeking to address this threat generally take one of two approaches:

  1. Artificial Pollination: About 25% of the companies Re:food has found are trying to replace pollinators with technology. You may be picturing tiny robotic bee-like drones flitting from flower to flower, and there are companies working on this. However, most drones today still lack the finesse to pollinate without damaging flowers (Mongabay). More common to see are companies harvesting, storing, and spraying pollen, across entire orchards or within controlled environments like greenhouses.
  2. Enhanced Pollinator Management: The remaining 75% or so of companies are creating technologies that support the management and safekeeping of bees. We’ve looked at companies building sensors and smart hives for beekeepers that monitor the health of the colony for earlier interventions. And a few companies are targeting growers by promising better performance of rented bee colonies for higher pollination rates and yields, through hive grading and “training” bees to visit the crop of interest.

Our Insights

Market size

The value of pollination services was 439 MUSD in the United States in 2022, and almonds accounted for 83% of the total market (USDA). 100% of US almonds are grown in California and, by one estimate, 80% of all honeybees in the US are transported to California’s Central Valley every spring to pollinate almond flowers. Other crops that rely on pollination services (such as: cherry, plum, avocado, apple, squash, clementines, tangerines, pumpkins, and cranberries) pay much less per colony compared to almonds, where beekeepers can earn up to 200 USD per hive. Globally, various sources estimate the size of the pollination services market value at 0.64-2.3 BUSD annually.

However you calculate it, the value of pollination services is much lower than the value of pollination itself – which was estimated to be EUR 150 billion in 2005 (Gallai et al., 2009). Pollination tech companies (who support or compete with the pollination services industry) need to figure out how to capture more value from the wider food industry, hopefully without driving up the cost of food. 

Self-pollination may be an alternative to Pollination Tech but holds its own risks

Some plants are naturally self-fruitful, meaning that pollen from one flower on the plant can fertilize another flower on the same plant or the same variety. These plants have less need for pollinators than plants that reproduce through cross-pollination and need to be fertilized by pollen from a different plant of the same variety. Interestingly, as pollinator decline continues, some plants seem to be evolving to self-fertilize. And humans are speeding this along – two self-fruitful almond varietals have been developed and are on the market today. 

Is this a good thing? In some ways, reducing the pressure on pollinators could help. But these self-fruiting plants may also be evolving to have smaller flowers and produce less nectar, which would be bad for pollinators. Without cross-pollination, plants lose out on genetic variety and are more susceptible to genetic defects. Even for naturally self-fruiting crops, cross-pollination can increase yields. So while self-pollinating varietals are interesting, we don’t expect self-pollination to eliminate the need for pollination services and wild pollinators. 

Pollination Tech solutions do not address the root causes of pollinator decline

Pollination stability requires healthy and diverse commercial and wild pollinators, which means we must address pollinator decline's systemic drivers (National Academies Press). Many of these systemic drivers arise from the very food system that depends on pollinators! Habitat destruction for agricultural purposes, pesticide use destroying beneficial insects and pests, and the rise of monocultures all affect wild and domesticated pollinators alike. 

The pollination tech innovations we’re seeing today largely don’t address these systemic issues, which are built into our modern agriculture system. Adapting pollination services to meet the realities of the current system is certainly important. But, without other changes to the system like habitat restoration, reduced synthetic pesticide use, and the introduction of polycultures, we expect that pollinator decline will only continue. Why does this matter? Modern pollination innovations might reduce the negative impacts of this on our food system for a while, but likely won’t address the additional biodiversity loss of wild plant species that also depend on pollinators. This could, in turn, have trickle-down impacts on animal species that depend on those plants for food and shelter, and on our water, soils, and air, all of which would circle back around to harmign our food system. We need solutions that consider the whole system, not just part of it.

Because of this, we see greater potential for positive impact on pollinator decline from innovations in other segments, such as biological or mechanical alternatives to synthetic pesticides, or tools to help growers manage the complexity of biodiverse agriculture systems.

What’s the takeaway?

At Re:food, we believe that pollination tech is important for food system resilience in the near-term, and is more attractive than promoting self-pollinating varietals.  Pollination tech companies might struggle to sell into a relatively small and fractured pollination services market but might have more luck going after growers directly to capture some of the value pollination provides. However, in an ideal world, it would be a stepping stone to protect yields in the near term while other shifts towards regenerative practices and less impactful agriculture occur.

Are you interested to learn more about our work? Do you agree with our conclusion, or think we’re missing something crucial? No matter what, we want to hear from you! Reach out to us at

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