BuzzTech’s story begins in 2010 when IT professional Julian McCurdy returned from overseas. He spent a day with his father, riding in the truck to visit hives in and around Auckland – that day in the sun changed everything. Julian discovered a love of bees and everything to do with them. He joined his father’s Auckland-based urban beekeeping business BeezThingz, learned beekeeping through him and eventually became BeezThingz's main beekeeper and manager.
“We really tuned into a new whole ecosystem thing, and absolutely nailed the goal of getting bees back into urban ecosystems.”
Honey bees are used for honey production. When you’ve got different varieties of honey, each has needs that change how your business operates. Outside of honey production there are pollination services. Kiwifruit and seed fruit are probably the main pollination services in New Zealand. And there’s propolis, which is a whole industry on its own. It’s used to produce medicines and cosmetics, and a range of other things. Then there is wax production, which is used by all sorts of different industries. Finally there is breeding of new bee colonies, and breeding of queens. Companies will set themselves up just to produce queen bees to sell in New Zealand and overseas.
By 2012 Julian was ready to improve the way the business worked and how it was positioned in the market. He had “a bigger vision” - aiming beyond the hobbyist beekeepers on BeezThingz’s database, for the big, commercial operations as well. The core of his idea was to improve the results customers were getting from their hives by creating software that would track exactly what they were doing with every hive... and support this with other services to keep the hives healthy.
By 2016, Julian’s bespoke software had collected enough data for him to develop technologies to improve the way beekeepers manage hives, and increase their understanding of bee colonies. The data also showed him how important the right kind and amount of nutrition is to hive health and productivity. He researched the market, found a nutritional supplement in the US and made arrangements to import it. Problem solved.
To keep his research and development separate from the family business, Julian decided to set up a new company: BuzzTech.
By 2020, numerous backyard beekeepers were using BuzzTech’s innovations, while two of New Zealand’s large beekeeping enterprises were testing them for commercial use.
Marrying beekeeping with technology
When Julian returned from his OE in 2010 he wasn’t planning a bee – based business. “I didn’t want to go back into IT and big corporate offices, and decided I’d go out in the truck with Dad for a couple of weeks. I’ve never looked back,” he says. Learning the sweet art of beekeeping was his first task and over the next few years he gradually took over managing the family’s Auckland-based business.
“Dad had set it up as a way to farm the city without having to own any land, and it was pretty basic and pretty small. Anybody that was open to having bees on their property and paying for it were his customers. Not all were suitable, and I started thinking about ‘how do we screen customers, keep the good ones and find more good ones?’ Julian says. He was also paying a bit more attention to getting to know the customers and thinking about ways to make them happy. This was important as some people’s properties were awkward to access, which made visiting them hard. “Then they weren’t seeing you as often as they needed to, so they were getting unhappy,” he says.
Choosing customers more carefully was a big part of this. “If you do it right from the beginning, you can keep them a lot happier, really getting to know the person a bit before you just sign them up. We tapped into a different audience with messaging about developing urban ecosystems for bees.
“Getting bees back into urban ecosystems, we smashed it. To the point where we wouldn’t want to put in any more hives into some parts of Auckland. We had so many neighbourhoods and people with hives in their backyards that we used up all of the resources there, with the bees that we put in.”
Within two years, they had doubled the number of BeezThingz customers and Julian was itching to do more. “I started writing spreadsheets at first and then basic software to try and manage our customer base and improve our communications with them, still trying to maximise customer satisfaction,” he says.
He was also curious to find out how his customers worked, so he set up his spreadsheets to track their beekeeping records. Gradually a pattern emerged showing that beekeepers’ on-site record keeping - which is fundamental to understanding the location, strength and status of each of their hives - was hit and miss.
“So I started developing software so my beekeepers could record every time they went to a hive, what was in it and what they did,” he says. The software also monitors how much beekeepers are feeding colonies, what supplements they’re giving them and any treatments they’ve done on the hive. It also includes the landowners’ contact details and provides up-to-date health and safety documentation for beekeepers before they enter a client’s property.
“All this information makes it easy for managers to see in real-time how many strong hives they have, how many are weak, how consistent the colony’s stock is and which hives haven’t been visited for a long time,” Julian explains. “What you’re trying to get to is the maximum population of forage and bees in a beehive, and the maximum consistency between your hives.
The main thing is the software lets the person running the business manage their whole operation, so that they can get consistent, strong hives.
“With the software system working, I wanted the next layer — active management of the bee community — on top of that. I wondered how do we know what’s happening once I’ve closed the lid and walked away?” Difficult questions for owners were things like how did anyone know if the bees were healthy? What if they were about to swarm and needed to be moved? How do I protect the community of bees as a whole and not lose half their hive in an unexpected swarm?” Again an IT solution presented itself and Julian designed a sensor to remotely monitor the hives.
A lot of companies operate on very little data. As the person running the business, that’s a huge risk because you’re putting all of your trust in your beekeepers and you’re assuming that they’re doing all the right things.
One of Julian’s first principles was to build the sensor “from scratch, for beekeepers.” Furthermore, they had to be comfortable using it - Tech solutions were new to many in this industry. It also needed to be able to give the beekeepers a way to keep on top of the game, instead of just going along with what they’d always done, he says. “With the sensor, they can be sure that what they’re doing is the right thing to do, and then they can actually improve their operation by running tests and experiments and getting really clear data about how it went.”
As soon as the sensor goes into a hive, it starts collecting data about the colony. The data provides a baseline beekeepers can use to meet that colony’s unique needs, including its precise nutritional requirements. It might indicate, for instance, that the bees’ energy levels are low and the colony’s overall temperature has consequently reduced, as the bees aren’t buzzing in as often with food. “Then you can add a supplement and see immediately how the temperature profile changes and how the colony adjusts to having the new stimulation,” Julian explains.
“Colony nutrition is important, it’s fundamental, it’s everything to being a good successful beekeeper,” he says. “If you neglect colony nutrition and just assume it’s all going to be all right, then you’re not really going to thrive as a beekeeper. If bees aren’t fed the right amino acids they can’t make royal jelly,” he explains. “A domino effect follows as insufficient or poor quality jelly directly affects the colony’s hatching bee population, which it is essential for the community to thrive.”
“The bee supplement I bring in from the US has a lot of carbohydrates in it for giving the bees energy, but it’s also got the 11 required amino acids. I did my research on it, ran sensors in the hives, fed them all and was able to see the results.”
Julian registered BuzzTech’s name for the business with the Companies Office in 2016. It was a simple, online process, he says. It is also necessary to register the name as a trade mark to protect it as a brand in the marketplace.
At the time, he was working with “Sprout”, a six-month business accelerator to develop his ideas into a viable business operation. Among the Sprout partners were intellectual property (IP) trade mark and patent attorneys and Callaghan Innovation.
After much thought and work, Julian and the IP attorneys decided it wasn’t worth patenting the sensor circuit he had developed. This was partly because Julian had limited resources and partly because the sensor development wasn’t yet complete. “We were still iterating on the sensor itself, so the circuit was going to change. There would be no point doing all the technical drawings and patenting it, and then six months later having a new version. What we decided instead, was just registering the design of the super-simple sensor housing, because that part of it was unlikely to change. We could do quite a specific drawing and be quite confident that it wasn’t going to change.” Registering the design with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand is an inexpensive and easy way to protect your product, as an industrial design. Registering the design protects new or original features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornament, applied to an article by any industrial process, essentially the look and feel of the object.
While he was busy registering his sensor IP as an official design, Julian also registered the name BeesVita Plus as a trade mark to use on the nutrition supplement he was importing for BuzzTech clients.
Julian says he also wanted a good-looking logo or some sort of symbol he could make into a sticker beekeepers would be proud to put on their vehicles. He wanted “something that would really pull us all together. I came up with one that I liked and then registered that as an image trade mark.”
The trade mark is one of two steps that protect his software. BuzzTech software is covered by copyright law, with automatic rights garnered at the time it was created (technically the law says at the time of publishing). It is worth getting advice from a patent attorney as software can also form part of a patent, if it meets clearly defined legal guidelines.
Working with the Intellectual Property Office was magical, because the online system is so great, and you don’t have to ring up and wait in a queue. You can just log in and see everything, submit everything online.
Looking back over his achievements since 2010 when he started on his beekeeping journey, Julian says his hard graft has been lightened with some magical moments. He’s moved to Taranaki and is the Operations Manager for 1,500 hives. “I’ve got 13 beekeepers who are using the system I designed. I’m able to get really major insights out of my software that I can report to the business owner and say ‘Hey look at this!’ The owner’s amazed and it’s magical for me to see it’s actually working really well.”
He’s moved his focus from the hobbyist BeezThingz, which aims to change the public perception of beekeeping, and improve the way that colonies were being kept. BuzzTech focuses on commercial beekeepers, and created methodologies and technologies, which take the chance out of hive management.
Julian says in New Zealand the beekeeping industry is contributing $5.1 billion of GDP – a figure that’s climbing every year. Besides exporting many varieties of honey, we also export bee products like medicines, produce wax, breed new colonies and queens – which “is a pretty big business.” Some companies even package one-kilo boxes of bees and export them to the likes of Canada and the US for their pollination – the list goes on. There are many opportunities for his work and the future looks bright.
By 2020, testing his technologies on a commercial scale was well underway. For this, he hand-picked a couple of big companies to work with – Forest and Bees in Taranaki and Natural New Zealand in Christchurch. Importantly, they are able to use and give feedback on the technology without requiring constant support and input from him.
With Forest and Bees, Julian says the software means they can track everything throughout the season. “We split the company into three separate beekeeping units to run the software as a test. We were able to collect good data and our results were so clear. The beekeepers had been visiting the hives more often, because they were held accountable for collecting the information. The group of hives with the software performed so, so, much better than the others.” Julian is able to support strategic decisions with this new, really clear, hive.
Getting insight where there was no insight before … there’s so much that changes when you all of a sudden know what’s going on.
The other company Julian chose to work with was Natural New Zealand. “They had 4,000 hives, they already had purchased RFID tags [a type of tracking system that uses smart barcodes to identify items] and had the tags on every one of their boxes already. So, when I came along and said ‘hey I’ve got this system I just need a company to really prove it on’, they jumped in as early adopters.
“James, who is Natural New Zealand’s managing director, was absolutely ecstatic. He invested in the company and he’s now a director of BuzzTech with me.”
The research and development is nearly complete. The beekeepers are loving it. Now all that remains to be done is for Natural New Zealand and Forest and Bees to complete a twelve month test cycle. “Then I’ll start bringing on other customers,” Julian says.