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Bax Bees is a family-run beekeeping business based in Plumley, Cheshire, providing honey and bee related products sourced from its hives. The bees produce a wide range of distinctive, varietal and multifloral local honeys. These are cold gravity extracted, raw and unpasteurised, only coarse filtered and 100% natural. None of the honey is ever exposed to a higher temperature than it would normally be in a hive. Unlike mass produced honey, this means all of the natural enzymes, yeasts, proteins, flavours and aromas are perfectly preserved. As well as local and infused honeys, Bax Bees also manufactures a range of other products using beeswax, propolis and pollen from its hives.

What's the buzz about bee pollen?

Bee pollen is full of easily assimilated protein and lecithin, which boosts energy and helps fight allergies. The number of people suffering from allergies is increasing. As a result, efficient production of bee pollen is a growing market. Bee pollen is collected using a pollen trap. This is a device that is placed on the entrance floor of a bee hive. As the bees enter the hive, the trap knocks the pollen off the insects’ legs into a collecting tray, where it can be harvested by the beekeepers.

The challenge

Many customers reported very positive impacts on their allergies (including hay fever, eczema, dust and cat hair) after consuming Bax Bees’ products that contain bee pollen. However, using conventional pollen traps was not producing enough pollen to meet rising customer demand.
Also, traditional pollen traps can be hard on bees. They have to squeeze through a hard edged hole, regardless of whether they are entering or leaving the hive or even carrying pollen. This can damage their legs and wings and the resulting congestion around the entrance can also stress the colony, leaving it vulnerable to disease. Traps can only be used on strong and healthy colonies and can only be activated for 24 hours at a time to ensure the bees get enough pollen for themselves, making the process more difficult for a beekeeper to manage.
With a 20 year engineering career behind him, Bax Bees’ owner Henry Baxendell decided that the best way to increase pollen production was to manufacture a new type of pollen trap that would maximise pollen collection while minimising the impact on his bees. After experimenting with different designs using sticky tape, glue and egg boxes, he turned to I2C’s 3D printing masterclass in order to develop a protoype to test his innovative design in a reallife situation.
I2C provided consultation services as well as training for Bax Bees’ staff on its state-of-the-art 3D printing facilities so a prototype could be quickly produced.

'Bee' inspired

The prototype combines different features taken from several traditional designs, along with new ideas, such as cone-shaped entry. Other features were only possible thanks to the advanced CAD tools and 3D printing technology made available by I2C. These include smooth transition between entry and exit cones and flexible star-shaped entry. Creating ‘bee’ shaped pollen removal entry holes 3D printed from a flexible polymer makes it much easier for bees to enter and does not cause damage to their legs or wings. Some bees can pass through the entry holes without losing their pollen. This enables the traps to be used for longer periods without adversely affecting the health of the hive. To prevent congestion, a cone shaped screen directs incoming bees to ‘bee’ shaped entry holes, while outgoing bees are ‘funnelled’ to open, larger holes for an unhindered exit.

Proof of concept

Initial testing of the prototype has already provided proof of concept. The company plans to use the results to proceed to production volume of the design in time for the next pollen collecting season. The expectation is that pollen production will increase by up to ten times its current rate, whilst the impact on the bees is reduced.

Henry Baxendell said: “The I2C application process was very straightforward and the results of taking part in the programme have been hugely significant. Access to the technology and expertise has enabled us to develop a working prototype really quickly. This would ordinarily be way beyond the scope of a small, family owned and run business such as ours. I hadn’t realised the full possibilities of 3D printing and scanning before attending the masterclass and the engineers at I2C also suggested some great improvements to the design. In the long term, we expect this invention to enable us to increase production of pollen so it goes from being a sideline product to becoming a major income stream for our business.”

The I2C initiative was part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund. SMEs registered or trading in Cheshire and Warrington, who met the eligibility criteria, were eligible to apply for support from the I2C project. Applicants had to have a turnover of less than €50 million and employ fewer than 250 employees. In addition to I2C’s in-house team of engineers and specialist equipment, SMEs that enrol in the project had access to the world-class facilities at the University of Chester, via its state-of-the-art skills, equipment and resources based at Thornton Science Park and the NoWFOOD Centre in Chester.

The I2C project has now finished but if you are a business looking for access to facilities and expert growth support, please contact the University of Chester’s Business Growth team either by visiting www1.chester.ac.uk/business-growth, emailing businessgrowth@chester.ac.uk or you can call 01244 512 477.