Client Spotlight: Erica Shelley, CEO of Best for Bees
Best for Bees works with researchers, producers, and supply companies to improve bee health, make beekeeping easier, and save the world's bees—one hive at a time. The startup offers a subscription service delivering bee health products to beekeepers worldwide.
Protecting bee populations and improving hive health and food security is the mission of AC:Studio client Best for Bees. Founded in 2011 by Erica Shelley, Best for Bees has become a leader in bee vectoring—using bees to deliver medication, pest treatments, and nutritional supplements into a beehive.
Shelley's path to protecting bees wasn't her original career plan. She earned her doctorate in molecular and medical genetics from Oregon Health & Science University in 1999 and started her career using fungi as a model for studying cancer. Shelley started beekeeping as a hobby 15 years ago—one that quickly became her passion.
"Because of my research background, it ended up being more than a hobby. I started going to conferences around the world. I was really into organic beekeeping and learning about alternative ways of keeping bees. Then I brought that knowledge back to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, where I started teaching beekeeping courses and became a beekeeping consultant," Shelley said.
As a self-described "bee scientist for hire," Shelley was able to further extend her knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of hives. The move from a consulting-focused business to a product-focused company was inspired by a project with the University of Guelph working on bee vectoring.
"Bee vectoring is the simple process of where bees walk through a powder, and then wherever they fly, they deliver that powder. Bee vectoring for the control of parasites and moulds on crops was invented at the University of Guelph by professor Peter Kevan, who I worked with there," she said.
Shelley and Kevan worked together to research whether bee vectoring could protect hives from pests and diseases. The world depends on bees, but climate change, pesticides, disease, and other environmental and agricultural issues are wreaking havoc on bee populations worldwide. According to the U.S. National Agricultural, statistics showed a 60 percent reduction in hives in the U.S. between 1947 and 2008. In Canada, honey production fell 15.4 percent between 2018 and 2019.
"Almost 90 percent of our beehives were lost over winter in central Canada—it was devastating. The impacts of that are not just the loss of honey and beeswax products. The pollination of our food is dependent on bee pollination," Shelley said.
Hundreds of crops depend on bees for pollination, from coffee to apples to tomatoes. A report on the importance of bees from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that 75 percent of crops depend on pollinators like bees for food production.
"Losing 90 percent of the bee population has a huge impact on our food prices and in the longer term, if we lose honey bees—which are the most populous of the bees—we start affecting our tree population. We lose trees, we lose air," she said.
Of all the threats to bee populations in Canada, the varroa mite parasite poses the most danger. The mites were introduced into the local ecosystem in 1989 and have quickly spread across the country's hives. Varroa mites feed on the honeybee fat and can spread diseases that impact bee navigation and cause deformed wing syndrome.
"The impact of the varroa mite is huge on the health of a bee colony. When we see these huge losses, we know that there is a correlation between varroa mite spikes and bee deaths. Finding a way to deal with the varroa mite and improve the health of bees has been paramount to the whole beekeeping industry—and that's where bee vectoring comes in," Shelley said.
Best for Bees is working on a solution using various soil fungi that kill varroa mites before they harm a hive. Bees would pick up the fungi and bring it along to protect their hives. As they've worked on researching and developing the process, Shelley said they saw another opportunity to help bees by educating amateur beekeepers.
"Hobby beekeepers often don't know how to deal with varroa mites, so the varroa mite populations blow up in those hobby beekeeping hives and then those bees go spread the mites. They're spread by people that don't know how to keep their bees correctly. We realized that there was a need for what we call a beekeeping mentor in their pocket— someone who's telling them the right things to do, when to do them, and provide access to the treatments and the nutritional needs of the bees," she said.
In April 2023, Best for Bees is launching its Bee Health Plan subscriptions, providing everything that hobby beekeepers need to keep their bees healthy. Each month, beekeepers will receive an integrated pest management plan with products that are good for bee health and the environment.
The startup is also building a mobile application to provide educational information and collect hive health information. The data at the hive can include varroa mite counts, treatments, whether there's a queen or not, and how much honey they harvest.
"There are all these metrics they can put into the app. Then we can start monitoring what's happening with bees in a larger area. We can start correlating it with weather events, and this will allow them to start doing predictive beekeeping as opposed to responsive beekeeping," Shelley said.
Best for Bees first came to the Accelerator Centre in May 2021 during the final stages of its research project at the University of Guelph. Since much of the research happened in the summer months, Shelley said they couldn't take full advantage of the program and mentors. She added that taking more time to complete the research and dive into researching startups helped set them up for success when they returned for the AC:Studio program. The AC:Studio program is funded by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).
"We were very early. At my very first meeting, they asked about our MVP and I said 'our most valuable player?' I've come a long, long way in the intervening time," she said.
Shelley applied to the AC:Studio program and was accepted for the cohort. She said it was great to be back with the mentors, many of whom had been pivotal in building their business model. The company’s first physical product is the ProtectaBEE, an adjustable hive entrance that protects hives from predators. Shelley said Accelerator Centre mentor Steve Fyke helped her understand how to move to a subscription-based business model.
"When we first started out, we just had the ProtectaBEE. There's a lot of expansion that can be done with it, but it wasn't a great recurring revenue model. Moving into a recurring revenue model product made more sense in terms of being able to scale up the company," Shelley said.
Beyond the mentors, Shelley added that the Client Services team at the Accelerator Centre has been instrumental in scaling Best for Bees.
"Chantal, Bereket—they've all been pivotal in keeping us up-to-date with what's going on. They reach out directly and let us know that we'd be a good fit for different projects. That's been really fantastic," she said.
While her goal is to become a leader in the beekeeping industry, Shelley said she hopes Best for Bees can be part of the solution to save the world's bees.
"The company isn't something I planned. It was my hobby that became my job, and it is the most incredible thing ever. I work with bees. I work outdoors. I get to positively influence the environment—it is really awesome."
AC:Studio is funded by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) and is delivered in partnership with WEtech Alliance, Innovate Niagara, Conestoga College, SnapPea, Uvaro, Bereskin & Parr, RSM Canada, and Gowling WLG.