Liquid gold. That’s the phrase that tends to get used in any discussion of the riches to be made from honey. The honey business is increasingly big business, potentially a billion dollar export industry when it comes to manuka honey, and yet even at the commercial level old beekeeping traditions die hard.
Hamilton-based startup In-Digi (previously known as 3D Gold Honeycombs) intends to change all that. Founded earlier this year by a group of University of Waikato marketing students, the company is developing a manmade alternative to honeycomb, using cutting edge manufacturing processes to make in an instant a structure that bees can spend weeks producing in the hive.
This is not just about saving time, however. To create the mass of hexagonal cells in which they store honey, bees have to use honey reserves – on average 10 kg to make one kg of wax. Apply that average across a large commercial beekeeping operation and you are kissing goodbye to a lot of liquid gold indeed. By contrast, if you could do that vital job for the bees and free them up, you could significantly boost your honey yield.
In-Digi’s innovative proposal, unveiled at this year’s Fieldays, is to use injection moulding technology, recycled beeswax and bioplastics to create honeycomb so that the bees can get to work producing honey without delay.
“Essentially our idea is to shorten the amount of time and decrease the amount of honey wasted by bees to produce beeswax, providing beekeepers with an alternative that allows bees to fill readymade combs,” says co-founder Chris Coromandel, who estimates that it can take bees three to six weeks to produce enough wax to fill one tray.
Additionally, the company hopes its innovation could help in the fight against the industry scourge of American Foulbrood disease, which infects honeycombs. “When beekeepers contract that disease in their hives they pretty much have to burn out their whole hive, killing every single bee,” says co-founder Bronson Waaka. “We’re trying to mitigate that. It could save so much time, cost and stress for beekeepers.”
The business was born when the group of seven students pitched their concept to the 2016 Innes48 Business Startup Competition. “It really started with one of our group members, who is an avid beekeeper,” says Waaka, who stresses that the company is a private venture, not connected in any way to the university. “We’re all entrepreneurial people, it just so happens we’re all university students.”
They didn’t win the startup competition, but as part of the market validation required for the exercise they approached a number of commercial honey operations, including Comvita, and received a positive response.
Daniel Paul, CEO of industry body Apiculture New Zealand, says that if the innovation proves effective it could provide a useful tool.
“You can’t argue with anything that creates efficiencies and which saves the industry money. On that basis, you’d have to say it is worth investigating.”
It raises a question: why hasn’t this been done before now? Coromandel blames beekeeping traditionalism. “In England, a lot of apiarists are still using traditional wooden frames; there’s a reluctance to want to change or improve. We’re hoping this innovation might give that a bit of a push.”
Initially, they had envisaged using 3D printing to create the honeycombs. But given the strength of interest from potential customers, it became clear that that particular technology isn’t likely to be able to deliver the mass-production needed.
“Given the scale we’ve been asked to fulfil we’re looking at injection moulding, just because it is faster and we’d be able to produce a whole lot more,” says Coromandel, who adds that they’re in discussion with two Hamilton-based manufacturing operations.
It’s early days, and part of the reason for exhibiting at Fieldays is in the hope of catching the eye of investors who might finance the crucial next round of R&D. Among other things, they need to work out exactly what materials they should be using, with a sharp focus on sustainability. The expectation is that they will make heavy use of recycled beeswax, in combination with yet-to-be-determined bioplastics.
“We want as organic as possible a material for use in the production process,” he says. “At university they’ve developed plastics using blood. We don’t want to use blood for the honeycomb, but we want to use a similar process to try to develop it from beeswax, keeping it as close to the original source as possible but with the strength and structure of plastics. That’s where we are looking to do a lot more research, to find the right chemical compounds and density for the structure to be able to hold all that honey.”
The goal is to begin testing various materials over the next summer, with an emphasis on studying how bees respond to the combs and comparing the amount of honey produced against traditional processes.
Despite the fledgling nature of the venture, they have already talked to lawyers about protecting their intellectual property, says co-founder Tillery Paintin. “We’re trademarking and copyrighting everything, trying to protect what we have.”
The plan, she says, is to finish the R&D and trialling, then to expand within New Zealand before looking to go overseas. Given the boom time being enjoyed by the beekeeping and manuka honey industries, their timing couldn’t be better, really.
“I think this is a long term product. If we can get enough backing, in two years time we will be a big company.”