Lab-produced honey goes into industrial-scale production just as global supply from bees is disrupted by Putin’s War
JERUSALEM, Israel––Regardless of whether Ukraine staves off the Russian invasion or suffers the genocide threatened by Russian use of heavy weapons against civilian targets, the biggest and perhaps only winner of what is now known worldwide as Vladimir Putin’s War is likely to be the Israeli biotech start-up Bee-io Honey.
Bee-io Honey is reportedly now within days of marketing industrial quantities of actual bona fide honey made in laboratory vats without any use of bees.
Initial manufacturing capacity is projected at about 3% of Israeli domestic honey consumption, but Bee-io Honey anticipates rapidly scaling up to compete in the global honey market.
Both Ukraine & Russia are leading honey exporters
The Bee-io honey-making process could not come online at a more opportune time.
Russia, under almost complete global economic embargo in protest of the Ukraine invasion, ranks eighth in the world in honey production, at just over 65,000 tons per year, about 750 tons more than Mexico and 2,500 tons less than India.
Ukraine ranks fifth in the world in honey production, at more than 71,250 tons per year, 2,000 tons more than the United States.
Only Iran, Argentina, Turkey, and China contribute more to the world honey supply. Only China, whose bees produce more than 457,00 tons per year, exports more honey than the combined output from Russia and Ukraine.
Non-bee honey won gold medal
The Bee-io method of producing genuine honey without the use of bees could help hugely to fill the looming gap between honey supply and demand.
Back in 2018-2019 a team of 12 students from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology were reportedly looking chiefly at the market potential for vegan honey, made without any use of animal products, when they developed a way to “teach” the bacterium Bacillus subtilis to make honey from pollen in the same way that the gut bacteria of honey bees process pollen to produce honey.
The team won a gold medal at the 2019 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition held annually in Boston, against 300 other university teams from around the world.
This attracted the attention of Arik Kaufman, a founder of the Israeli biotech food companies Meat Tech and BioMilk.
Kaufman, reported Israeli journalist Shani Ashkenazi in June 2021, “presented the idea to Ofir Dvash, then vice president of technology at the startup incubator GKI Gro.
Developers’ names mean “honey”
“Ofir recruited his food technologist-biotechnologist sister Efrat Dvash-Riesenfeld, a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the Weizmann Institute of Science and postdoctoral fellow in metabolism and immunology from Harvard Medical School. Together they founded Bee-io.”
Coincidentally the surname Dvash means “honey” in Hebrew.
Offir Dvash and Efrat Dvash-Riesenfeld shared another connection to honey-making, Ashkenazi explained.
“When Efrat and Ofir Dvash were children in Moshav Hatzav in Israel’s south,” Ashkenazi recounted, “their father grew tomatoes in the family greenhouse. The siblings had a special role: they were the bees. Because the tomatoes were being raised in a closed, humid greenhouse, there was nothing to pollinate the flowers and induce growth. So, brother and sister would run through the rows and shake the plants,” to release tomato pollen to drift through the greenhouse.
“Save the bees!”
Offir and Efrat Dvash, now 36 and 41, respectively, established a honey-making laboratory in the Rehovot Science Park to perfect their manufacturing method and produce samples for potential investors.
Simultaneously they began talking up the potential of laboratory-made honey both as a health food and as a way to save bees.
According to the World Bee Project, headquartered in London, England, about 87% of all flowering plants, including 77% of the plants that produce food for humans, depend chiefly on bees for pollination.
Without pollination, plants cannot produce grains, fruits, or vegetables, all of which exist as part of the pollen-driven flowering plant reproductive process.
But the global bee population has steeply declined in recent years, partly because humans have cultivated only seven of the 20,000 known bee species as honey producers. These seven species have come to monopolize much of the niche for pollinators, to the extent that when the cultivated bee species succumb to disease, climate change, vulnerability to neonicotinoid pesticides, or any other factor, even giant Asian “murder hornets” in some habitats, less vulnerable bee species are not plentiful enough to rapidly replenish the total bee population.
Producing more honey without the use of inbred cultivated bees could allow wild bees worldwide to recover genetic strength and diversity.
But the “health food” aspect appeared to be the strongest selling point for the market that Offir Dvash and Efrat Dvash-Riesenfeld initially anticipated.
“Global honey prices have doubled”
“When bees collect nectar,” Dvash-Riesenfeld explained, “they bring large quantities of pesticides into the hive, and eventually to us, the consumers. Our product won’t have these things.”
By early 2021 Bee-io had applied for U.S. patents, expecting to move into the U.S. market soon after beginning to sell honey in Israel, and in June 2021 merged with the investment firm Whitestone Group, beginning to sell shares of Bee-io on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange
Explained the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “There are many potential advantages to cultured honey. Aside from being vegan – no actual honeybees are involved – cultured honey could be produced on demand and would not be dependent on seasons, plants or the number of honeybees in the world.
“The world honey market was valued at $9 billion as of 2019,” Haaretz continued. “With annual growth forecasts of 8%, it is slated to reach $14.4 billion by 2025.
“Global honey prices have doubled in the past decade, notes Bee-io, Haaretz said.
“We can’t go on exploiting animals”
“We want to disconnect human nutrition from animals, and we can’t go on exploiting animals,” Ofir Dvash told Haaretz.
Headlined the Jerusalem Post Business & Innovation section on December 20, 2021, Bee-io “has announced that industrial-scale production of their product will begin by March 2022.”
Continued Jerusalem Post writer Zachy Hennessey, “Bee-io Honey has begun scaling up development of its cultured honey production system.”
First to produce 100% mono-floral honey
“We will be able to produce products that are very limited in nature,” Offir Dvash told Hennessey, mentioning coffee honey.
“Even when we go to the supermarket and buy eucalyptus honey,” Offir Dvash said, “it’s not 100% eucalyptus honey: it’s maybe 20% or 30% eucalyptus flowers, and maybe wildflowers, citrus flowers – but it’s not 100%,” since no one can absolutely control where bees go and what pollen they bring back to their hive.
“We’re the first in the world to be able to produce cultivated honey which is 100% mono-floral,” Offir Dvash asserted, while “keeping the same qualities that natural honey has. Natural honey is antibacterial, and our honey is the same. It has different vitamins, antioxidants, calcium, and many more materials that regular, natural honey has – but we’re lacking the bad materials that are very common in natural honey,” such as chemicals and toxins.”
Honey attracts more Vikings than @#$%
Regardless of the success of Bee-io, conventional honey production using bees is likely to retain economic and cultural importance in both Russia and Ukraine when Vladimir Putin’s War is over.
Finding and extracting honey produced by wild bees––and producing the alcoholic drink mead, fermented from honey––was already a major industry in the region when the Viking prince Oleg of Novgorod (845-912) united what are today Russia and Ukraine in the Kingdom of Rus.
Indeed, the abundance of honey from which to brew mead might have been a big part of what drew the Vikings into the area, far from the sea that was central to the rest of Viking culture.
Ukraine produced most honey per capita
Before Vladimir Putin’s War, Ukraine produced the most honey per capita in the world, with about 700,000 Ukrainians employed in the honey industry.
Conventional honey production as it is done today evolved largely from the inventions of Petro Prokopovych (1775-1850), a Ukrainian-born military officer who retired from the Russian czar’s army in 1798 to help his brother, a beekeeper.
Managing 580 beehives by 1808, Prokopovych in 1814 invented the wooden-framed beehive, ancestral to today’s “supers,” and then improved it by adding wooden partitions with apertures passable only by worker bees, now called “queen excluder.”
These two inventions allowed beekeepers to produce and extract pure honey, without contamination from bee larvae, and permitted honey extraction without smoking the hive to death to gain access to the honey.
His inventions also enabled Prokopovych to expand his holdings to a then-unheard of 6,600 hives in production.
Prokopovych eventually established a beekeeping school that graduated 700 certified beekeepers over the next 53 years.