Could RoboBees be the future pollinators?

Is the long-term survival of bees endangered? Ask anyone who has remotely paid attention to the news on the internet and their answers would be yes. This is largely due to the massive attention the subject has received over the years.

In the 1990s, beekeepers reported the disappearance of bees. Unlike previous cases where colonies of bees died, this was different as the bees just disappeared. Some bloggers dubbed the phenomenon “the bee rapture” and the concept went viral on social media.

The panic of the “bee rapture” spread like wild fire worldwide and understandably so because human beings need food from the plants that bees pollinate and if there are no bees there would be a food crisis.  Some even went as far as claiming it was the end times and the apocalypse was here. However, scientists have established some of causes of the bee decline. Most of it pointed to a number of reasons.

To be a bee in the modern age must be quite stressful, they’re overworked, work in strenuous and toxic environments so it makes sense for them to be dying from illness and stress.

 

Bees need pollen to survive and the absence of their favoured plants has also contributed to their decline. In the past they had it good, smaller fields, less pesticides and more diverse plants. It is not surprising that they needed some help. The regulations around pesticides and extended bans in America and parts of Europe have helped a great deal and scientists have found there is no longer a decline since these regulations have been put in place.

The RoboBee prototype might also provide a solution. It can act as a helping hand for insects to pollinate. In 2013, the first RoboBee took its first flight. Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences had been working to create a fly-like robot for 12 years and announced their success in early May of that year.

The RoboBee was not the only miniature flying robot in existence at the time but was certainly one of the smallest at 80-milligrams.

Fast forward to 2017,  researchers in Japan explored the idea further using miniature drones covered with sticky hairs as substitute pollinators.

The team demonstrated their drone on an open bamboo lily flower in February 2017. They reported that the device could pick up 41% of the pollen available within three landings and successfully pollinated the flower in 53 out of 100 attempts. The patch of hairs are augmented with a non-toxic ionic liquid gel that uses static electricity and stickiness to be able to “lift and stick” the pollen.

While the drone was manually operated in this particular study, adding artificial intelligence and GPS to the equation could help it learn to forage for and pollinate plants on its own.

Although this presents a necessary breakthrough in using technology and science to aid nature especially during desperate times, it has quite a lot of catching up to do. In fact, the current natural pollinators including bees, butterflies, insects and animals have had millions of years of evolution to perfect the art of pollination – from identifying the plant to co-ordinating the team to successfully distribute pollen from one flower to the next.

For now however, the technology has provided a basis to combat what could be a serious crisis in the future and for that alone, it gets a thumbs up.

Sources: Harvard UniversityCell Journal 

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