Doug Bonderud

Apr 4th 2019

Robotic Bees: Pollination Problem-Solvers or Biotech Buzzkills?


The future of flowering plants — and human agriculture — is inextricably tied to honey bees. But falling populations linked to chemical crop spraying and environmental changes have experts worried — if we unintentionally banish bees, can flowering plants adapt? Technology may offer a viable solution to this hellish hive scenario: robotic bees.

Are these micro-machine pollinators the savior of stamen everywhere, or just bionic buzzkills?

The Pollinator Problem

Things aren’t looking great for the bumbling, buzzing honey bee — as noted by Geographical, bee numbers are down 50 percent in the U.K. and U.S. over the last 25 years, while data from Germany shows a 76 percent drop in the total number of flying insects over that same time period. Some won’t be missed — looking at you here, mosquitoes and wasps — but the honey bee decline poses a serious problem. Even as bee levels fall, crop volumes are on the rise, creating a short-supply, high-demand scenario for pollinators.

The key actor of apiary aggression? A class of pesticides known as “neonicotinoids.” According to Chemistry World, these “neonics” were first deployed in the 1990s and remain popular worldwide. Seeds coated with neonics are protected for up to 10 weeks. Since the compound is water-soluble, it’s readily dispersed through the plant during growth. Pests that suck or chew on treated plants get a high dose of neonics that binds to nerve cell receptors in place of acetylcholine, in turn eliminating them via cell death and nerve cell inactivation.

Bees are regularly exposed to sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids in pollen and nectar. Repeated exposure increases nerve cell vulnerability and boosts toxicity, putting pollinators at risk. While legislation is emerging to regulate and reduce the use of neonics — for example, the EU recently expanded its pesticide ban — many non-flowering crops are exempt. Neonics present in ground water and soil used by flowering plants create secondary threats to bees.

Building a Better Bee

If bees can’t save themselves from humanity’s hubris, is there a way for scientists to improve pollination potential?

One option is gene editing, or using CRISPR-based technologies to build bees that aren’t affected by neonic neurotransmitter trickery. But this may create more problems than it solves, since there is no way to know the long-term impact of genetic manipulation on bee colonies, honey production or pollination efficacy. What’s more, gene editing doesn’t stop the uptake of pesticides, merely the direct effects. As a result, both modified bees and their honey would still contain varying neonic concentrations.

Robotic bees offer an alternative: Instead of attempting to fool Mother Nature, some researchers are leveraging improved micro-materials and building techniques to create artificial bee imitators. As noted by New Scientist, work from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology led to the creation of a 4-centimeter wide, 15-gram drone capable of extracting pollen grains without damage to flowers using a combination of horsehair and purpose-built sticky gel.

Other work in the field includes Harvard’s RoboBee, which leverages a combination of microelectricalmechanical (MEMs) and biomimicry technology to fly, swim, perch and pollinate. Not to be outdone, the Draper laboratory at Cambridge created DragonflEye, a “backpack” that fits onto live dragonflies to enable data capture and guided pollination.

Economies of Scale

While technologies such as nanoscale manufacturing, MEMs and granular control of robotic devices has made the dream of robotic bees conceptually possible, there’s debate about the large-scale usefulness of this solution. Quoted in the New Scientist piece, professor Saul Cunningham of the Australian National University in Canberra notes that the almond industry in Australia has “orchards that stretch for kilometers and each individual tree can support 50,000 flowers, so the scale on which you would have to operate your robotic pollinators is mind-boggling.” According to Science Direct, meanwhile, using robots is “unlikely to be economically viable” and could cause “unacceptably high environmental costs,” likely created by problems with the eventual end-of-life for robotic devices and the impact of their “death” on existing ecosystems.

Worth noting? Robotic bees have garnered commercial interest: As reported by Business Insider, industry giant Walmart recently filed a patent for robot bees. While there aren’t any details on exactly how the super-retailer would use these artificial pollinators, it’s clear that production at scale has potential.

Hive Mind

Fixing the pollinator problem may require more than armies of robot bees or backpack-bearing dragonflies. Instead, the solution may demand a multi-faceted approach that combines natural processes, government action and technological assistance.

What does this look like in practice? Consider that while just 10 percent of plants still rely on “wind pollination” to reproduce, 100 million years ago virtually all flowering species used this technique. Recent findings from the University of Toronto show that over time, decreasing efficacy of insect pollinators could prompt evolutionary selection for low-frequency stamen vibration to boost reproductory chances. As noted by Science Daily, meanwhile, improved pesticide legislation from state and federal governments will also play a role in long-term bee health — to encourage effective law making, researchers from the University of Missouri have catalogued every “pollinator protection policy” addressing threats to bees made by U.S. state governments from 2000 to 2017.

Finally, the increasing sophistication of IoT devices offers potential for remote monitoring of critical beehive health indicators such as temperature, humidity and the presence of pests such as mites.

Taking the Sting Out

We’ve got a pollinator problem: too many crops, not enough bees.

While artificial insect armies offer some potential, taking the sting out of stamen supply problems demands multiple marching orders for legislative change, IoT innovation and robotic bee development.