Not all startups are about technology: Meet the BEEcosystem

April Greene — June 12, 2015

When you hear the word "startup," you likely think of a fledgling company that's developing some new technology—probably computer software or hardware.

But not all startups are focused on tech. Even the Wikipedia definition of the word nods to a greater scope: "Many consider startups to be only tech companies, but as technology is becoming a normal factor, the essence of startups has more to do with innovativeness, scalability and growth."

At Pilot Projects we champion those who innovate by incorporating hands-on principles, a focus on natural systems, and thoughtful design. One of our new favorites is BEEcosystem, a modular honeybee hive on a mission to reconnect people with their food.

In 2012, Mike Zaengle and Dustin Betz founded GreenTowers, a company that brings the outdoors indoors via aquaponic and hydroponic furniture design and vertical growing systems.

Following an introduction to beekeeping at Penn State's esteemed Grozinger Lab, Dustin brought the idea of an indoor/outdoor display hive back to his team. No one else at GreenTowers had had much honeybee experience, "but after learning more about them and interacting for a little while," Mike says, "we're all hooked."

An offshoot of the company's central "Living Interiors" theme, BEEcosystem is "a tangible way to connect people with honeybees, to get their friends and neighbors talking about the pollinator crisis, which is a huge problem in agriculture right now," says Mike.

"One out every every three bites of food you eat was probably produced by a pollinator [a bee or other pollen-mover like some butterflies, beetles, moths, ants, or wasps]. Yet even the most experienced beekeepers are currently losing about one-third of their hives every year to Colony Collapse Disorder and other problems. This is a critical issue."

A rendering showing the way a BEEcosystem could look inside a restaurant

BEEcosystem is a modular hive that attaches easily to an indoor or outdoor wall.

"It's primarily designed for residential, urban living," Mike explains. "Relatively few U.S. communities outlaw beekeeping. And unlike the few other indoor display hives we've seen, BEEcosystem works well for renters because it features a window exit unit that fits into practically any sliding window. There's a tube that the bees crawl through to get outside to fly, then they return through it to get back to the hive. You don't have to drill a hole in your wall; you just need to mount a bracket. It's very non-invasive.

"Also, this will be the first display hive we know of that will ship with the colony of bees already installed. With other hives, the beekeeper purchases a package of bees that are delivered through the mail, and then pours them into the hive—which can be very intimidating for a first-time beekeeper! With BEEcosystem, your hive installation is simplified. Plus, other displays are small and of a fixed size. Ours, like a Langstroth hive [the standard beehive, made up of stacked boxes containing beeswax frames], is modular—the beekeeper can simply attach additional hexagons to expand the hive as the honeybee colony inside grows."

Is it safe to have a bunch of bees flying around? Mike says it is.

"Honey bees are relatively docile; quite different from their more aggressive cousins like yellow jackets. They very rarely sting unless provoked. I had thought being outside in the yard with the BEEcosystem tube coming through the window might make me nervous, but after I worked with honeybees for a while, I realized they're much friendlier than I thought. You can definitely walk around doing yard work all afternoon and they won't bother you!"

Perhaps the biggest question: can one harvest honey from the BEEcosystem?

"Yes!" says Mike. "And you don't even need a centrifuge to process it. Like other top bar style hives, you can simply take a knife and cut a chunk of the honeycomb out. To transport an indoor-mounted BEEcosystem hive outdoors to harvest honey or perform other maintenance, you just remove the transfer tube, and the spring-loaded hinge locks the bees inside."

Mike, Dustin, and their team have three functioning BEEcosystem prototypes now, and will launch a crowdfunding campaign in August to begin accepting pre-orders. Fulfillment for pre-ordered hives stocked with bees will begin at the start of the next beekeeping season in spring 2016; empty hives should be shipped for delivery by this December. The anticipated cost is around $300 for an empty hive or $500 for one that includes bees.

"We want to lower the barrier to entry for first-time beekeepers," says Mike. "And we want to put bees in front of people and make them a conversation-starter. Bees are so important to our lives, but I don't think we're well-enough acquainted."

Better acquainting people and the nature that sustains them, using a simple and elegant hands-on design? That's the kind of startup innovation that appeals to us.

"Keep up with the buzz" on BEEcosystem's website.

Tags: sustainability, innovation

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