Imagine a world reliant on robot bees to roam the fields and meadows

Robot bee
© Dr. Eijiro Miyako

Welcome to your dystopian nightmare installment #4692.

Mother Nature has spent a very long time perfecting the ways in which things work together to ensure their longevity. In mutualistic relationships, different species have adapted to one another to provide services that are mutually beneficial. Think flowers and bees. Bees flit from flower to flower getting nectar for food and in doing so, deliver pollen to where it needs to go for the plants to reproduce. Simple, effective, beautiful.

While bees are not the only pollinators – butterflies, birds and bats do their fair share as well – bees are the workhorses. Pollinators are required for the reproduction of 90 percent of flowering plants and, as we’ve noted many times before, responsible for one third of our food crops.

So Mother Nature has this lovely system all figured out, but then homo sapiens comes along and screws everything up. (And while yes, we’re part of nature too, we’re definitely the bull-in-a-china-shop part of nature.) Bees are suffering massively under our watch and are in a deep dive as far as number go, thanks to a combination of things like agricultural chemicals, habitat destruction and climate change. Last year, for the first time ever, seven species of bees in Hawaii were placed on the endangered species list. Last month the rusty patched bumblebee became the first bee in the Lower 48 earmarked for the list – though the current administration just froze that designation. (How do you spell human folly?)

Anyway. A world without bees would be a world without a third of our food, at best. So many a scientist are doing what many a scientist do, dreaming up inventions to save the world. This time, how to pollinate plants without bees. And since this is the 21st centuries, that means one thing only: Send in the robots.

There has been a lot of talk about robobees, or bumblebots as I call them. And now scientists in Japan have managed to turn a drone into a remote-controlled pollinator by attaching horsehairs coated with a special, sticky gel to its underbelly, reports the Los Angeles Times.

While the system is only in its infancy, its creators hope that it could lead the way to developing automated pollination techniques that could help improve food security. At the very least, it seems more promising than some of the other pollinator alternatives that have been experimented with so far.

“One pollination technique requires the physical transfer of pollen with an artist’s brush or cotton swab from male to female flowers,” the authors of the study describing the new method wrote. “Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort. Another approach uses a spray machine, such as a gun barrel and pneumatic ejector. However, this machine pollination has a low pollination success rate because it is likely to cause severe denaturing of pollens and flower pistils as a result of strong mechanical contact as the pollens bursts out of the machine.”

The breakthrough this group had was using a sticky pollen-grabbing gel that Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, has stumbled upon accidentally a decade ago. As the LA Times explains:

The scientist had been attempting to make fluids that could be used to conduct electricity, and one attempt left him with a gel that was as sticky as hair wax. Clearly this wouldn’t do, and so Miyako stuck it in a storage cabinet in an uncapped bottle. When it was rediscovered a decade later, it looked exactly the same – the gel hadn’t dried up or degraded at all.

“I was so surprised, because it still had a very high viscosity,” Miyako said.

And better yet, Miyako noticed that when the gel was dropped on the floor it picked up an unusual amount of dust. So, the chemist thought, "why not pollen?" (And by the way, can I get a hold of some of that gel? You should see my floor.)

The team used a $100 four-prop drone and gave it a sticky-gel-dipped horse-hair soul patch on its belly, and then steered it between lilies to pick up pollen from one and deliver it to another.

“A certain amount of practice with remote control of the artificial pollinator is necessary,” the study authors note, and as can be seen as the drone dive bombs the poor lily in the video below. But it clearly portends for a future with whirring machines flitting from bloom to bloom – though Miyako envisions bumblebots as giving bees an assist, not replacing them altogether.

“In combination is the best way,” he says.

Though as far as I can tell, saving the bees in the first place seems like the best way; nature already has this all figured out, let's let her drive.

Tags: Bees | Colony Collapse Disorder | Endangered Species | Insects

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