Bee populations have been rapidly declining in recent years due to “Colony Collapse Disorder”, which is thought to be linked to the use of certain pesticides by farmers. According to a United Nations report on the issue, the major contributing factors to the decline of bees are habitat loss, climate change, and farming methods, including the use of harmful pesticides. From 2015 to 2016, there was a 44% decrease in bee colonies. The primary concern regarding the decline in bee populations is the effect it has on food supplies and economies. About 3-quarters of global crop species rely on pollination from bees and other insects, in addition to 1.4 billion jobs worldwide that depend on pollinating insects. In North America alone, bees pollinate at least 90 commercially grown crops, such as apples, almonds and blueberries. Since animal pollinated crops supply many vital micronutrients, a loss of those crops could lead to “deficiencies and human disease”, according to bee expert Norman Carreck.
Bees are required for cross pollination, which is the process of transferring pollen from one plant to another. The pollen sticks to the bodies of bees when they feed on flowers, and is then deposited on the next plant they visit. Cross-pollination has more benefits than self-pollination because it increases genetic diversity and improves the quantity and quality of crops.
To combat the problem of a declining bee population, robotic bees are being created. Eijiro Miyako and a team from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have created a manually controlled drone that mimics a bee’s ability to cross-pollinate. The four-centimeter wide drone’s bottom is covered in horsehair and a sticky gel to which the pollen sticks and is then transferred the next plant. The drone was able to successfully cross-pollinate Japanese lilies. Miyako and his team are currently working to develop autonomous drones that will use GPS, high-resolution cameras, and artificial intelligence to help farmers pollinate crops.
Anna Haldewang, an industrial design major, also developed a bee drone for a design class where she was challenged to create a self-sustainable object that stimulates the growth of plants. Haldewang’s design is made with a foam core, a plastic shell, and a pair of propellers. The drone then has six sections with tiny holes to suck in the pollen for use in cross-pollination. She has titled her project Plan Bee and filed a patent application, hoping to have a marketable product in about two years. Haldewang envisions the product being used by many people, including as an educational tool for individuals to create their own gardens.
What makes bees such good pollinators is their ability to use decision making, learning, and teamwork. Bees can decide which flowers are suitable, manage their energy, and remove stale pollen. Drones are able to achieve this level of individual management as they can track flowers, plot routes via GPS, and return to bases to recharge. However, drones will need a significant amount of programming to replicate all of bees’ capabilities. In order to work most efficiently as pollinators, the drones would need to learn how to make decisions based on information shared amongst one another, such as dividing labor, finding the best routes, and specializing in different plants as bees do.
However, there are many who do not see drones as the solution to the decline in bee populations. Instead, many think that the focus should be on saving bee populations rather than finding a way to replace them. Saul Cunningham, from the Australian University in Canberra, does not believe that using drones to pollinate plants is economically feasible. Orchards stretch for many kilometers and contain thousands of plants and flowers, so the scale that robotic pollinators would have to operate on would be “mind-boggling”. Instead, Cunningham thinks that more financially viable strategies should be pursued, such as better management of bees through fewer pesticides, breeding self-pollinating crops, and using machines to spray pollen over crops.
Robotic bees are one of many technological re-creations of animals and insects. Others include drones to track and study songbirds, robotic rhinos to protect the species from poachers, and cyborg dragonfly drones called DragonflEye, which use synthetic biology and neurotechnology systems to create micro-aerial vehicles. These technological advancements can provide scientists with new valuable information about various species. Ultimately, though, when it comes to a decline in populations as with bees, the best solution is to combat the root of the problem.
To help the bee population, efforts could involve limiting the use of pesticides and rebuilding their natural habitat. Tim Dover, a South Carolina beekeeper, also talks about getting more farmers and gardeners to start raising their own bee colonies. Dover says that master gardeners have seen what the lack of pollination does to their gardens, but once they get their own beehives, they see the production level of their gardens increase dramatically. Rather than relying on drones and artificial intelligence to make up for the lack of pollination, Dover’s results suggest more effort could be made to encourage people to raise their own bee colonies.
As Eijiro Miyako states, they hope their drones will help counter the problem of bee decline, but it is important that “bees and drones should be used together”. While robotic bees represent important advancements in technology and artificial intelligence, they may not be the best solution to the decreasing in bee populations. Instead, they can be a useful tool to help farmers in the meantime, while long term solutions to stop the decline of bees are created.
Cover Photo: Honey Bee Gathering Pollen from Flower (2013), by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr. Listed under Public Domain.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.