Bees are Dying. Could Flying Drones Replace Them?

A new study, Pollinators in Peril, by the Center for Biological Diversity has found that that 52 percent of native bee populations are declining and 24 percent are in serious threat of extinction primarily due to pesticide use and severe habitat loss.

The evidence is overwhelming that hundreds of the native bees we depend on for ecosystem stability, as well as pollination services worth billions of dollars, are spiraling toward extinction. It’s a quiet but staggering crisis unfolding right under our noses that illuminates the unacceptably high cost of our careless addiction to pesticides and monoculture farming. — Kelsey Kopec, a native pollinator researcher at the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the Pollinators in Peril study

If bees disappear, we lose many of the foods we take for granted. Brian Paddock, owner of Capay Hills Orchard, an organic almond farm in central California, told NPR, “No bees, no almonds. It’s that simple,”

It doesn’t stop there, if bees die off we’d have to give up coffee, chocolate, many fruits and vegetables, and obviously honey. But, if we don’t figure out a way to protect bees, we could be the biggest losers.

Rather than heed Einstein’s warning, and focus on ways to save the bees, one researcher is developing technology to replace them. Eijiro Miyako, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, thinks developing artificial, drone like bees could help farmers deal with the impending pollination crisis. Miyako created a 4-propeller, bee-sized drone equipped with his ionic liquid gel that has just enough stickiness to pick up pollen, but not too much so it can be released.

Miyako added horsehair to the drone’s underbelly to give the pollen more to adhere to and coated it with the ionic gel. He then flew the manually operated drone over Japanese lilies and successfully collected pollen from one flower and transported it to another. The overall success rate of the drone was about 37 percent.

There are some obvious practical problems to overcome with the drone, which will not be flying over farms any time soon. It’s expensive; the battery life is only 3-minutes and it’s difficult to manually operate, but one of the biggest issues relates back to those almond trees.

There are 1 million acres of almond trees in California. Every flower needs to be pollinated . . . How many robots would be needed? – Marla Spivak, a MacArthur Fellow and entomologist at the University of Minnesota

Still, Miyako is optimistic. He’s considering adding artificial intelligence, GPS, and high-resolution cameras in future prototypes.

Not everyone supports the idea of replacing bees with drones. Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, believes we should try to save them.

We have wonderfully efficient pollinators already. Let’s look after them, not plan for their demise.

Pollinator Protection:Contact Us
Mail: Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Pesticide Programs
, Mail Code 7506C
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington DC 20460

EcoWatch – “347 Native Bee Species ‘Spiraling Toward Extinction”
NPR’s The Salt – “Rise of The Robot Bees: Tiny Drones Turned Into Artificial Pollinators”
NBC News – “Robo-Bees May Bring New Fix for Pollination Problem”

Bee photo courtesy of Totomaru – Flickr@Creative Commons

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