With bee-colony deaths on the rise, robotic aerial "bees" could perform artificial pollination.
Bees pollinate approximately 75% percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the United States (according to the USDA), making them a vital part of our economy: One Cornell University study has found that pollination by “managed honey bees” contributes nearly $20B in value to US crop production at large per year.
But America’s bees are dying out at an alarming rate: At least 8 bee species are categorized as endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the US lost 44% of all honeybee colonies in 2016.
As bee populations dwindle, scientists are seeking ways to help plants survive without them, and determining if robotic “bee drones” could assist with our growing pollination problem.
By equipping small aerial robots with horsehair fibers (that mimic a honeybee’s coat) covered in a sticky, electrically-charged gel, scientists were able to artificially capture and transport pollen just like normal bees – potentially opening the door for high-performance robots to help counter the decline in pollinator populations.
Bee populations are dwindling for a number of reasons.
Some have attributed the problem to rising agricultural use of neonicotinoids – a class of insecticides that can alter the nervous systems of bees.
Neonicotinoids are used on the vast majority of corn, canola, cotton, and sorghum crops in the US, but the insecticides’ effects are so damaging to bee populations that the EU is weighing a wholesale ban on their use in Europe.
Beyond insecticides, others point to diseases and invasive parasites – such as the Varroa destructor mite – that are arriving in the US from different countries.
Climate change has also likely played a role: According to 2015 research in the journal Science, dozens of bumblebee species began losing important geographic areas of their natural habitat beginning in the 1970s (well before neonicotinoid use took off).
With fewer natural sources for collecting pollen and nectar, bees have a harder time obtaining adequate food and nutrition, which are necessary for maintaining healthy colonies. Today, bees are losing around five miles of natural habitat in the US and Europe annually.
The convergence of factors is accelerating bee endangerment, which could have problematic repercussions for agriculture and food production. With far fewer bees — or none at all — it’s much harder, if not impossible, for many varieties of fruits and vegetables to survive.
This is why researchers are turning to technology to make large-scale pollination possible without insects.
Pollination by bot
To replicate the pollination process, scientists need to do more than develop bee-size robots. In fact, that’s the easy part: Advances in drone technology have made plenty of miniature, hovering robots accessible for commercial and consumer purposes.
The real challenge lies in mimicking the electrical aspects of pollination: Bees tend to exhibit a positive charge, which is why the negatively-charged pollen from flowers and other organisms is attracted to bees as they approach.
With a recent robotic-pollination innovation, researchers in Japan found a new use case for an existing electrical invention: Chemist Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (NAIAIST) first created a thick, sticky, electrically-conductive gel back in 2007, with intentions to use it in battery development.
The gel performed poorly as a conductive substance, but resurfaced years later, reportedly during a lab cleanup, and was tested in a new application — for pollination: By applying the viscous “ionic liquid gel” substance to vertically aligned animal hairs affixed to a small, remote-controlled UAV (or unmanned aerial vehicle), the researchers found the gel attracted pollen just like bees would.
Watch the UAV do its pollination magic in the video below.
The innovation was successful at pollinating Lilium japonicum flowers by drone. In tests with ants, Miyako and team also found that ants coated with the gel attracted more pollen from flowers and plants than counterparts without the gel.
Robo-bees to the rescue?
Of course, the research comes with plenty of caveats. As the video shows, researchers utilized a hummingbird-sized drone, which is too large to behave like a bee in a natural environment. The drone also required human remote control (which bees, obviously, do not).
Of course, GPS and artificial intelligence could one day be used to automatically guide robotic pollinators.
But while the deployment of far smaller, autonomous bees may be possible from a technical perspective, it’s not economically feasible yet in any large-scale way. A bee can feed itself, reproduce, and pollinate around 1,000 flowers daily. Even in a distant future, robotics couldn’t deliver that kind of scale.
Nonetheless, it’s possible we may see further applications for Miyako’s ionic gel (or similar scientific creations) in other agricultural applications. Since the gel was already successful at helping ants attract more pollen than usual, perhaps it could be applied to other insect species to make them more electrically conductive and effective at pollination.
Ultimately, the best way to protect our global plant population is to protect our natural organisms rather than replace them. But as more species become threatened by the manmade endangerment of bees and other animals, robotic assistance may be required.
With robotic assistance or next-gen gels, we may have a new solution for a taking just a little of the pollination pressure off of the globe’s dwindling bee population.