This is the story of a bug-loving Putney student who became an award-winning entrepreneur whose idea might just save our food system.
If you ask beekeepers and farmers to name their biggest problem, you’ll get a unified, resounding answer: mites. Specifically, the Varroa mite, a large, tick-like parasite that carries diseases and results in more than a 30% loss in honeybee populations every year. With the goal of improving pollinator diversity and increasing the sustainability of our food system, Combplex, an ag-tech sustainability start-up founded by Cornell University PhD students Hailey Scofield ’08 and Nathan Oakes, has created an innovative solution to the Varroa mite problem.
Science, Car Washes, and Lasers
Named Cornell student business of the year in 2018 and recently selected as finalists for GrowNY, an international competition for innovation in ag-tech and food production, Combplex initially developed a smart beehive frame that could tell commercial beekeepers which of their thousands of hives were distressed, allowing beekeepers to focus their energy on the hives most in need of help. But after Combplex’s participation in the NSF’s I-Corps program, which allowed Nate to log 8,000 miles traveling across the country to interview beekeepers, the priority became clear: remote monitoring wouldn’t be useful until Varroa mites were taken out of the picture. If Combplex couldn’t address the mites, they had no product.
Hailey and Nate wanted to move away from current systemic mite treatments, usually a vaporized acid or patties that slow-release a noxious chemical that kills mites sooner than it kills the bees. Hailey says those treatments are “like chemotherapy for bees; they can cause serious damage to the colony if they’re done at the wrong time, and you can’t use a lot of the chemicals while bees are producing honey, even though that’s when mites are active.”
Make no mistake. This is big business. Killing mites is the question in the beekeeping world. Big corporations and big science want to solve the mite problem, too. Unintimidated, undeterred, and approaching the problem with Hailey’s knowledge of bee behavior and a creative bent, Combplex invented a way to kill mites. “Nate is a computer scientist who is really into creative thinking, and I’m a bee scientist who picked up the value of creativity at Putney. We started to think, ‘OK, maybe there’s an approach these big companies haven’t thought of that we can use to treat Varroa mites.'”
It was Nate’s idea to hit the mites with a laser, a technology the company has now patented. “We thought we’d have to kill the bee as well, but because of the anatomical structure of a mite—they’re like water balloons—we tried a laser. We pinned the bees down, fired the laser, and the mites exploded. And we thought, ‘Okay, this is a thing.'”
Combplex knew bee behavior is very predictable. Varroa mites prefer to feed on bees of a certain age (nurse bees), and these nurse bees reliably move through gaps between frames full of developing bees, or brood. Combplex can illuminate the mites when they pass through one of these gaps, allowing them to identify bees that are carrying a Varroa mite. Any detected parasite is zapped with a laser, which does not hurt the bee. Hailey clarifies that “It’s sort of like bad laser hair removal.” Bees don’t love it, but they’re OK afterward. “They blow up like a water balloon!” she exclaims. Hailey emphasizes the verbs like she’s describing an action movie—The mites explode! They’re blasted with a laser!
But blasting one bee at a time? Is that enough? Yes, says Hailey: “If you can save one queen bee, you can save a whole colony of bees.”
So; to clarify. The product is fully automated and uses basic image recognition to only blast bees that have a parasite. The laser is stationary and trained at one specific angle. Combplex can do this because the mites prefer to feed in one place on the bee, and ride around in two or three other safe places on the bee where they can’t groom off the mites. It was really important to us to design a product that was “Drop and go,” as it means the beekeepers don’t need to do anything extra to install Combplex’s smart frame. Just place it in a colony like a regular bee frame. Hailey says, “I spent a lot of time on the farm at Putney, and one thing I learned (and that Nate learned from interviewing US commercial beekeepers) is that the one thing all farmers have in common is the last thing they want is one more chore to do. You have to make it easy.”
Big Data for Bees and a Healthier Future
Ultimately, Combplex hopes to use its technology to reduce pesticide application rates in pollinator habitats. “We want to leverage agricultural sustainability through the commercial marketplace,” says Hailey. “Our current agricultural landscapes can’t support native pollinators, so we have to resort to using 70–75% of all US honeybees transported on the back of semi trucks, going farm to farm to pollinate crops. The scale is unbelievable,” says Hailey. For example, Nate met a farmer who moves 50,000 boxes of bees across the US. If 450 boxes of bees fit on a single semi truck, you can imagine the size of his bee army as it rolls across our highways. You can make a lot of money doing this. For almonds, each hive costs a farmer around $200, and you need 2-3 hives per acre.
The bees spend two weeks at a farm and then move on, going from monoculture to monoculture, which impacts honeybees’ diet. Honeybees are generalists, which means they thrive with a diverse food source, but they don’t have it when they spend two weeks at an almond farm, then move on to two weeks with alfalfa, or sunflowers, or apples.
In addition to lack of diverse food, competition between bees is also intense. Moving in bees without additional forage leads to stiff competition for the small amounts of nectar and pollen to be had. This can help a farmer maximize yields, but can also end up hurting colonies of bees who usually need to be fed sugar syrup and pollen substitute by their beekeepers.
Combplex wants to open up the marketplace and to leverage the commercial bee market as a way to increase a more stable and sustainable agricultural environment. Pollinator diversity is currently very low. “If farmers had hedgerows—if they let flowering weeds grow between rows or in fallow fields—it would help increase pollinator diversity, the health of bee colonies, and the farmer’s yield. But today there’s no market-driven financial incentive for farmers to have these pollinator-friendly practices,” Hailey laments.
Combplex hopes that by tracking the health of colonies, they can collect data about how bee health changes in a farm with a variety of flowers versus in a monoculture. “It’s a huge difference for bees, but we have to introduce it to the market and have a financial incentive for farmers to let flowers grow, which ultimately increases their yield in the long run because you have all of these native pollinators helping.” People in the food security system are concerned about this. Says Hailey, “We need a higher level of pollinator diversity in our food system, and more resilience. We’re looking at the reality of climate change and unstable weather. A more diverse agricultural ecosystem can better withstand drought, intense rains, and so forth. How can we take our agricultural system and move in that direction while still producing massive amounts of food? That’s what we’re looking at.”
A recent grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute secured Combplex’s funding for placing laser devices in 200 colonies across New York State, which will serve as their scientific validation study, in partnership with Cornell’s Bee Tech Team. It’s a labor-intensive, exhausting path to bring a product to market, and next year, Combplex expects to be selling its smart frames and rapidly growing the company.
Roots and Lessons
Hailing from the far reaches of Nome, Alaska, a biologist’s paradise full of muskox, grizzly bears, and arctic foxes, Hailey came south to attend Putney. But it was a birding trip to Nicaragua with Cathy Abbott and Mick Baisley at Putney that first ignited her love of insects. “We were in the tropics. I was supposed to be looking at birds, but I was much more excited about crazy-looking beetles. I looked under every leaf. They were these small little aliens everywhere. Since then I’ve been fascinated by insects and trying to figure out why they’re so successful at what they do.” After that, she meandered a bit, eventually graduating from Wellesley, and then onto the PhD program at Cornell.
Hailey says that growing up in Alaska taught her an appreciation for rural problems, and working on a farm at Putney and then in agricultural jobs after graduation also made it easier to relate to people who are very different from her colleagues at Cornell. “Being able to go from bee rancher meetings in the Plains and then to come back to the ivory tower and say, ‘What kind of tech can help them?’ is a real asset. We need more communication between those two communities, and in order to have effective communication, you have to have a deep understanding of both worlds.”
Hailey wisely observes that “We need to break down prestigious, ‘educated’ vocabulary and get the academics and the ranchers in the room together to come up with innovative solutions.”
She and Nate have leaned on their rural roots as both balm and bearing during graduate school’s challenges. “It’s helpful to be able to go talk to folks who have nothing to do with the university. We can talk about real problems affecting real people and how we can solve them. Nate is from rural Pennsylvania; I’m from Alaska. We can hop into that way of speaking and leave the university behind. That’s something that’s allowed our company to be successful.”
Their experience growing up in rural areas and having family members who are farmers from Appalachia and the Midwest makes it easier for them to see connections that other companies working in bee health science don’t. Hailey sees the importance of such cross-cultural dialog—”It’s a huge problem at Cornell that people aren’t addressing—the lines created by regional and socioeconomic diversity. Sometimes those barriers are a lot steeper and higher than we realize.”
Hailey talks with deep love and great enthusiasm about bees: she delights in the differences between honeybees and bumblebees, explains which bees are generalists or specialists, marvels at bees’ strict adherence to routine and how they manipulate and adapt to foraging, describes their metabolic homeostasis, and much, much more. Sometimes people, like bees, don’t take a direct route to arrive at a destination. And sometimes, when they finally do arrive, their clarity of purpose tells us, quite plainly, that they’ve landed in the right place, and are doing exactly the work they were meant to do.