Humble Bees | Giving plastics the sting

Otago start-up Humble Bee is unlocking the secrets of a unique type of bee to tackle the global plastic pollution problem.

Founder and chief executive Veronica Harwood-Stevenson became so concerned about the effect of widespread, toxic and invisible plastics she began to look for an alternative.

“Plastic is in our beer, our blood and our breast milk. We sleep on it, we dress in it, and we create with it.”

Her research led her to a small, black bee belonging to the Hylaeus genus.

The bee makes a plastic lining for its nest that is resistant to water, flame, acids and solvents - making it an ideal candidate for a completely natural alternative to “scary plastics” coating everyday items in our homes, she says.

But recreating nature’s work has been costly, challenging and a decade in the making.

Initial tests of the nesting material - funded with what would have been Veronica’s house deposit - confirmed its potential. But it was impossible to deconstruct to determine its make-up, she says.

“We needed the live bees, but bee hunts are expensive and solitary bees are a biological needle in a haystack.”

Funding for the project stalled until Veronica enlisted Dr Richard Furneaux - director of Victoria University’s Ferrier Institute – to join the cause.

Once the project had the backing of a tertiary research institution, investors came on board. That enabled Veronica and Queensland bee wrangler Chris Fuller to track down specimens of the evasive bee.

Chemists at the Ferrier Institute studied the bee’s glands and created a synthetic material that has the same water and solvent-resistant properties as the nesting material. The focus now is to produce a material that is also flame retardant, Veronica says.

The potential for commercial application is huge, she says. The nature-inspired polymer could be used in clothing, carpets, upholstery, furnishings, many consumer goods, electronics and the construction, firefighting and health sectors.

Regulation against the use of current plastics – driven by serious health concerns – is looming, Veronica says. 

Major plastics producers are looking for alternatives, and Humble Bee has caught their eye.

"We have already got the interest of some big international companies, who we could partner with in a joint venture."

Humble Bee’s backers have so far invested about $1 million. They include Sparkbox Venture Group, ArcAngels, K1W1, Global From Day One, the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, and Callaghan Innovation.

The company plans to seek more capital in the next few months to fund the development of a microbial expression system – which will see genes inserted into fast-replicating fungi or yeast to efficiently reproduce the polymer so that it can be commercialised.

Veronica, who studied Reproductive Biology and Structural Anatomy at Otago University before completing a Masters in Science Communication and Film-Making, is a self-confessed serial entrepreneur – with skincare, lingerie and film production companies to her name.

Moore Markhams Otago director Charles Craw has been her accountant and business adviser throughout, ensuring Veronica’s businesses meet all their tax and legal obligations but also taking proactive steps to help them thrive.

“In the case of Humble Bee, he helped me set up an Australian subsidiary. As a general rule, New Zealand doesn’t really have a lot of expertise in genetically modified organisms so I will need to tap into Australian resource in future.”

Charles was able to tap into the Moore Global network, introducing Veronica to the Moore firm in Sydney to facilitate this.

He has also been invaluable giving company overviews to investors, providing regular financial updates, as well as advising on directors’ remuneration and on the implications of granting shares or options.

“Moore Markhams give me all the information I need and make it really easy and simple for me.”

The nesting recipe of a loner bee is just one of millions of nature’s inventions that could be reproduced to create a healthier planet, she says.  

“I am so in love with the idea of using nature and her millions of years of research and development to solve our major industrial problems.”

Photo caption: A water droplet shows the water repellency of the synthetic nesting material when applied to cotton. 
Inset: Humble Bee founder and chief executive Veronica Harwood-Stevenson.