Q&A with Combplex Co-Founders

Co-founders of Complex Hailey and Nathan sit down and give us an inside look of Combplex. They talk about their origin story, the device, and their rainbow unicorn goals!

How did this project start?

Nathan: This adventure is thanks to a weekly happy hour between the biology graduate students at Cornell. Hailey was there talking about how she's interested in measuring aspects of honeybee health- how honeybees maintain homeostasis and colony health. She was talking about how her tools weren't working well; honeybee science is messy.

Hailey: I wanted to know what happens to bees when they’re being transported. That was my big question. There’s no way to stand on the back of the truck and inspect a colony that’s involved in migratory pollination.

Nathan: It began as pure science, we thought that it'd be easy and quick…

Hailey: We can do this, no problem! Along the way there became room for more than just science. We were interested in making these products more robust for ourselves, for research, and for anybody who was interested. We began to hear more and more about the problems of commercial pollination, and how little we know about what those bees (and beekeepers) experience. Commercial pollination specifically- big-time beekeepers- are having a hard time. People always talk about how the bees are struggling, but commercial beekeepers are struggling right alongside them. For example, we talk to local keepers who are trying to grow their apiary but can’t because they don't have the time to effectively manage more colonies. We talked to keepers who have high losses, and they are not sure why even year after year. All sorts of open questions in bee management can be answered with a little more information- by embracing technology and remote monitoring. That’s where Complex steps in; we are here to help answer some of those questions.

What is Combplex? What is the device, and what does it do?

Nathan: Short answer: it is a microcontroller- essentially the bare bones of a computer.

Hailey: It's a remote fire alarm for your bees. The device collects data so beekeepers can learn where and when a specific colony has a problem. How do we do this? We measure different metrics of the internal environment of the colony. A healthy colony is incredibly stable; the device looks for changes on the inside. Honeybee colonies regulate everything and keep the internal homeostasis at specific points. With the data collected by the microcontroller, we can infer things about the colony health by observing how the set points may or may not vary over time.

What’s one thing you’d like people to know about Combplex?

Hailey: Combplex helps make beekeepering easier. We want to work with keepers to help track and optimize management logistics. And save bees! Complex ensures that we’re adding value to both sides of the equation: to industry and academics. We’re solving commercial beekeeper’s problems, not what we think their problems are. We’re constantly reaching out to prospective customers to ensure that we’re engineering for them, not us.

What are some of the problems you have faced? How did you tackle them as a team?

Nathan: A lot of electrical engineering typically goes on in a lab setting; you always have access to power and to proper tools. But in the field, it's a whole different story.

Hailey: It's funny because everything I've ever done is in the field, so I’m used to the messiness. I have no background in electrical engineering, but Nate has no experience with bees. I think what really drove us through is the quest for data. It's always the data! Simply put, we really want to know what happens to the bees on the back of the truck. Academia understands what bees in the U.S. experience,  but only the stationary, research, and backyard bees. We do not have date on the experience of commercial bees, and that's more than half the total colonies of bees in North America. It is a massive hidden gap in knowledge about honey bee and pollinator health.

So bees and electronics...that seems dicey. Do the electronic hurt the bees?

Nathan: No!

Hailey: If anything, the bees hurt the devices! But really, people used to think that cell phone signals were the reason that bee populations were collapsing, but its been debunked. We have bee health on the forefront of our minds, and we always prioritize scientific accuracy.

“SAVE THE BEES” Is on the bumper sticker of every other car. What’s the deal? Why are bees dying?

Hailey: It’s a synergistic effect of five main things: pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides and genetic issues. Poor nutrition: essentially bee habitats are being lost; we’re losing our flowers. And then there are pesticides which are used at higher rates with higher levels of toxicity, specifically for pollinators. We face genetic issues; honey bees have been bred with different attributes for a long time and now many are not adapted to the stressors that they face. You can't take a chihuahua and put it in the Canadian wilderness and expect it to do well. All those things together make it hard to be a honeybee today.

Nathan: There is so much information about half the bees that we don't understand because people aren’t studying the migrating bees. There's a lot of unknown about honeybee crisis, and that's one of the things we are trying to help with.

What is the history of commercial and migratory beekeeping?

Hailey: Migratory beekeeping started out as a way to get unique honey crops. For example, they'd move their bees into a citrus orchard to get delicious and unique orange blossom honey. And slowly, instead of the beekeepers paying the orchard owners to use their fields, orchards would pay the beekeepers to pollinate their crop. Right now a huge proportion of the crops in the US are pollinated by honey bees that are trucked in and let loose on the fields while the flowers are blooming. Agricultural environments today often don't support populations of native pollinators. Native pollinators are not there in the numbers needed to sustain the agricultural yields that we get from honeybee pollination. Native pollinators are being replaced by honey bees to fulfill the needs for agriculture production. You can’t have melons and tomatoes and blueberries and almonds without having honey bees on the back of trucks.

What are you asking the community? As a growing company, what are you seeking?

Hailey: We want to talk to ALL beekeepers and people who are using innovative techniques for managing honey bee colony health. We want to talk to beekeepers and learn about their problems!

Is this device exclusively for beekeepers or can I get this device for my backyard bees?

Hailey: This device is for any and all beekeepers!

Nathan: There are a lot of people around Ithaca, where our company started, that we’d love to work with.

What are your grand visions and long-term goals?

Hailey: There's the super big overarching goal which is to essentially align the financial incentives of commercial agriculture and pollinators. We want to use our devices to make beekeeping easier and encourage communication between crop farmers and beekeepers; that increased communication and collaboration will give us healthier agricultural ecosystems, honey bees, and native pollinators. Essentially the long-term goal is nothing sort of changing how agriculture works with regards to pollinators-That’s the rainbow and unicorn goal!

Nathan: Between where we are at and that ultimate goal, we want to continue to change honeybee science with actual beekeepers in mind. Maybe we'll be able to transform commercial agriculture for everyone! Combplex strives to make ecosystems healthier so that pollination services will be cheaper and thus produce will be cheaper. And bees will be healthier… bees touch on everything!