WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
We rely on bees to pollinate nearly 75 percent of our crops, but as colonies continue to collapse researchers are looking for new alternatives to pollinate crops.
Food security continues to come under the spotlight which is why we’ve recently seen research that uses genetically engineered insects to help bring crops back from the edge of death, the use of bioreactors to produce meat and dairy products without the animals, and huge investments in vertical farms, to name but a few. One of the seemingly sad realities of modern life is that, for one reason or another, whether it’s climate change and disease, or pesticides, bees are dying in larger numbers than ever before, and while it’s tragic the effect that that has on the ecosystem is even more tragic. Especially if you’re a farmer who relies on them to pollinate your crops. In fact in some countries the situation is now becoming so dire that engineers, hot on the heels of creating rather odd looking cyborg dragonflies, are trying to create miniature robotic versions of our fuzzy friends to improve crop yields.
About three quarters of global crop species, from apples to almonds, rely on pollination by bees and other insects, and pollination plays an essential role in helping produce much of the food we eat. As a result Eijiro Miyako at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, and his colleagues are now using the principle of cross pollination in bees to make a drone bee that transports pollen between flowers instead.
Miyako says the team is working on developing autonomous drones that could help farmers to pollinate their crops even as bee colonies continue to collapse. GPS, high-resolution cameras and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will all be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly, although he admits it will be some time before all that is in place.
“We hope this will help to counter the problem of bee declines,” says Miyako. “But importantly, we think bees and drones should be used together.”
Meanwhile Saul Cunningham at the Australian National University in Canberra says that using drones to pollinate flowers is an intriguing idea but may not be economically feasible.
“If you think about the almond industry, for example, you have orchards that stretch for kilometres and each individual tree can support 50,000 flowers,” he says. “So the scale on which you would have to operate your robotic pollinators is mind-boggling.”
Several more financially viable strategies for tackling the bee decline are currently being pursued, she adds. These include better management of bees through the use of fewer pesticides, breeding crop varieties that can self-pollinate instead of relying on cross-pollination, and the use of machines to spray pollen over crops. But, even as bee colonies continue to come under pressure most farmers seem pleased that there are people like Miyako trying to find new solutions, even if it’s sad there’s a problem in the first case.