With the rapid and concerning decline of pollinator species, biotech start-up Olombria uses technology to help hoverflies provide efficient and targeted pollination. We caught up with Tashia Tucker, founder of Olombria, to learn how their solution uses biodesign to improve pollination, and why we should all love the hoverfly.
Tell us how you got the idea for Olombria and how you got started.
I started off my background in architecture and design, but I was always a bit of a weird architect. I was really interested in the idea of design sitting at the intersection of science and engineering. I looked at what kind of research is happening in science and technology, and how those come together to make something useful for the world.
I came to London for a one-year Master of Research program at the Royal College of Art. Mid-way through that year there was a competition called the Biodesign Challenge, and it sounded like it was right in my sweet spot of interest. The topic of the competition was the future of food. So, we worked for half a year trying to develop ideas for what the future food could look like. We realized the struggle the bees were having, maintaining the pollination demand of some of our most critical crops.
We thought; what other pollinators are out there, and what impact are they having on our food systems? How can we help with this? And we came up with the idea for Olombria and highlighting the incredible benefits hoverflies have on pollination. We ended up winning the RCA portion of the competition and exhibited our project at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York. Once we got back to London from the competition and got into the Royal College of Art’s start-up incubator (Innovation RCA), things really started to spin up from there.
A lot of people have a negative concept of flies. Can you tell us about the hoverfly and why they are important?
In general, hoverflies are incredible, and they are the next largest subset of pollinators. They're beautiful and are considered bee mimics. They’ve been out there doing 30 percent of the world's pollination for quite some time and often overlooked and ignored. So, we want to look at these 6,000 species of hoverflies and identify which ones are right for different crops, a native species, and bring that biodiversity back into pollination.
Two hundred and fifty of the nearly 6,000 species are natives throughout the UK, and many are incredible pollinators. And not only are they pollinators, but they are also very good at pest control. With Syrphid hoverflies, the aphid-eating ones, their larvae will go and consume thousands of aphids, which are a terrible pest to crops.
What's interesting about Olombria is the connection between pest management and pollination. When your plant is attacked by pests, the plant is less attractive for pollinators. So not only do you suffer low yields from the pest infestation, you also don't have the appropriate pollination. It's nice that hoverflies are providing a dual service to the world and increasing yields for growers as part of an Integrated Pest and Pollination Management system (IPPM).
How does Olombria work?
Our system uses machine learning and AI to first capture the story of what's happening on the field in terms of insect decline, pollinator health, and abundance throughout different portions of the field. This is information that the growers have never had before. Historically, they're limited to what they've done on the field and going by gut feel of what's happening. The data we capture quantifies what is happening in a much more streamlined way.
Once we identify where the problems are, we're able to introduce native species of hoverflies which we rear in our labs in Ashford, Kent. We can design systems to choreograph their behavior, keeping them targeted to the crop and the areas that need additional pollination and pest control services. We use different species of hoverflies and some of those are aphidophagous hoverflies, which basically means that they consume aphids and protect the crop.
With a system that identifies where the problem is, we can add the data entomologists have always used – temperature, time of day, wind speed –combined with the strategic release of native hoverflies. We use lures to keep them attracted to the crop, because as much as hoverflies are better at cold weather, high altitudes, resistance to pesticides, they can wander off in different directions. They don't have the same strategy of bees of “flower, back-to-hive, flower.” The lures allow us to keep the hoverflies focused in the areas where we need them to be. Then they can live out their natural life cycle. When they die off, they contribute to the biodiversity in the soil.
Looking at those three pieces of “pollinator data, native flies, and natural lures” together delivers the greatest impact in terms of yield improvement for the grower and overall plant health on the field.
Can you explain how hoverflies and technology interact?
We first set up the devices. We will leave those running so that we can understand a bit about what's happening on the field or in the different polytunnels and vertical farms that we're working in. Then we do a release of flies. Just in one small container we can have up to 300 pupa flies, so the shipping and transportation are much easier and have less of a carbon footprint than with beehives.
We can simply bring the flies out there in different life stages depending on what we need. This allows us to have flexibility throughout the season. If the grower starts to see an impact or damage later in the season, we can introduce additional flies if we need to or different species depending on the crop types. The hoverfly mixes that we use are specific to the type of flower and the system we're working in. This gives us the greatest flexibility by being able to package the flies and release them at the end of points throughout the farm field. We then place our species-specific lure system in targeted areas, which not only attracts the hoverflies that we're releasing but also wild hoverflies and contributes to biodiversity at a larger scale and functions as a precision pollination system.
Our entomology team also works closely with growers because we want to make sure they're informed as to what's happening on their fields. The entomology team will still go out and do manual surveys as a classic entomologist will do, so we have this overlap of human entomological data plus machine learning data as a bigger picture.
Can you share any outcomes or case studies so far?
Over the last three seasons, we ran trials in which we have a control tunnel where we let the grower do exactly what they're doing now, bringing out the bees. We don't release any sort of flies or have our lures in those tunnels. Then we have our tunnels with the Olombria system.
Comparing the results of those two tunnels, we found over an eighty-six percent increase in raspberry weight. Strawberry weight was a 20 percent increase over the control tunnel. Just by having those effective hoverfly pollinators, lures, and devices around. We also tested the sweetness and firmness of the fruit and the diameter. All-around, growers are getting 99.6 percent class one fruit in their crop, which is quite extraordinary because that's the crop that goes into the market and ends up feeding us all.
What’s ahead for you and Olombria?
Each season we have a really great opportunity to introduce new crop types and new growing systems. We've also been able to prove out the system in vertical farming. The soft fruit market and unique growing situations are perfect for our flies because bees are much less effective in those environments.
We will be making our first international launch next year. The hoverflies we currently work with are all European native, so the launch allows us to grow outside of the UK with different species, environments, and growing systems.
The Olombria team is incredible. We have the top hoverfly specialists and agricultural insect rearing lab technicians out there. It’s great to see how the engineering team and scientists work together. We’ve laid a foundation for an interdisciplinary culture, and we are excited about the future.
Learn more about Olombria at their website. This interview was edited for length and clarity.