Of Bees and Big Data
If you didn’t hear about this incident, it’s probably because of the small and inconspicuous nature of the victims: Honey bees. But Markus Bärmann experienced the full extent of the scandal. In 2016, the professional beekeeper lost all of his domesticated bee colonies – around 2.5 million worker bees in total. The reason was the sub-standard wax he received in exchange for his own pure beeswax in the form of foundation sheets, as they are known. Following extensive research on his own initiative – and at his own expense – he found that the wax originated from China and was cut with artificial waxes that are toxic to bees into order to hold down the price. Markus lost tens of thousands of euros as a result. The incident was a turning point for him. The master beekeeper took time out to travel abroad and see how his counterparts in other countries go about doing things. Returning with plenty of new ideas, it was clear to him that solving the problem would mean taking matters into his own hands.
The path to the Impact Factory
Together with his partner Heike Holzum, whom he got to know through beekeeping, and their friends Annika and Michael Humme, who run a beekeeping supplies business, he committed to the task of tackling bee mortality. Additional support is being provided by the German Professional Beekeepers’ Association and scientific advisors Dr Anton Safer and Dr Peter Hoppe. “Actually I never intended to start a company. It wasn’t until May that this decision came up,” Markus explains. During his travels on the other side of the Atlantic, he encountered biopolymer foundation sheets – the plates that are used to structure and accelerate honeycomb building. Initially, he planned to import them from the USA. As this is not permitted for legal reasons, he instead decided to enter the market with his own enhanced version. When he commissioned the Gelsenkirchen-based design agency Wilddesign to develop a corporate design, the boss was immediately won over by his idea and also entered it into the KUER start-up competition – which just happened to be attended by Impact Factory co-founder Oliver Kuschel. The men got to talking and Oliver suggested that Markus submit an application. “I snuck in just before the deadline.” Now Markus is one of the “create-ups” in the Impact Factory.
An underappreciated species
The wax scandal (German report from 12:30) is not the only difficulty facing beekeepers. When you have been a beekeeper for almost 30 years like Markus, you are only too aware of how much things have changed in recent years. 30% mortality rates are no longer a rarity. By comparison, three percent was the typical annual figure back when he first became a beekeeper. But terms like bee and insect mortality have only recently entered the public consciousness. After all, “The last orang-utans or dolphins of their kind” makes for a more impactful headline than insect deaths. And yet the smallest members of the food chain are often the most essential. “Bees act as a kind of bellwether. If they are doing badly, it’s often a sign of other environmental problems,” Markus explains.
No lobby for bees
As a bee expert, another aspect of his work is education and public relations. Bees do not have a strong lobby. “Many amateur beekeepers are simply unaware of the overarching problems. Those who bought the adulterated wax will probably have attributed the death of their bees to other reasons, like a Varroa destructor infestation or a bad queen,” Markus explains. “This means the fake Chinese products remain in circulation unnoticed and keep causing damage.” Needless to say, Markus himself filed a complaint – and fraud was proven. However, the fake product continued to be sold: “There is a regulation or standard for almost everything in Germany, but not for the quality of beeswax.” He is having to use his powers of persuasion in other areas, too. Markus holds the patent for oxalic acid sublimation, a vaporisation process that is used as a medication against the Varroa destructor mite that is deadly to bees. The procedure is already used in other countries with success, but it is yet to be approved in Germany. The beekeeper from Schermbeck is committed to making it widely available. He is supported in this task by Dr Reinhard Dickhardt, a friend who is a beekeeper and a chemist.
Airborne data collectors
Another thing Markus hopes to achieve in the future with his products – biopolymer foundation sheets and oxalic acid sublimation – is transparency through data gathering. As he says: “The political representatives of the agricultural sector, which includes beekeeping, get their input from a handful of big players.” He cites the example of the German bee monitoring project which, acting on behalf of a major German manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and plant protection products, collected analytical data from a number of beekeepers. “But all of that aggregated data was ultimately withheld from them.” Markus himself has been an active researcher for various bee institutes. He goes on to list more studies with questionable methodology, whether in terms of inadequate thresholds or approaches that were fundamentally incorrect. After entering the market, he intends to use his products to collect data and make it available to all of his customers. In exchange, this large pool of data will help him to identify wide-ranging phenomena and examine them in detail. Beekeepers currently pay several hundred euros for simple diagnoses that only a few institutes in Germany are able to conduct. “We intend to penetrate these near-monopolistic structures and make the information publicly accessible – for municipal and city authorities as well as for the beekeepers themselves.”
Name of social enterprise: Health4Bees
Founder: Markus Bärmann (55), Schermbeck. Beekeeper, involved in beekeeping since childhood, professional beekeeper for the past 27 years. Research in the USA, Canada, Nepal and New Zealand
Products: Innovative biopolymer honeycomb plate (foundation sheet), medication to protect against the Varroa destructor, system for the holistic collection of bee health data
Vision: Effective and holistic protection against bee and insect mortality, improving the health of our flora and fauna, transparency of analytical data