To Bee or not to Bee?
Will robots become the new bees?
Written by: Mariska Veer
Have you ever heard of robot bees? No? They do exist, and are currently being developed by several research groups. One of the many studies is conducted by a research group at the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. Here they made a prototype of a robot bee. This one is about two centimeters in diameter, can fly and has already successfully pollinated plants. But why is there a need for robot bees, and what exactly is a robot bee?
The number of insects has declined enormously in recent years, including many bee species. Over the past decade, an average annual mortality of 30 percent or even more has been observed in bee populations. This mortality is partly due to the increase in use of pesticides in agriculture. Much agriculture consists of only one type of crop, the so-called monoculture agriculture. These crops are often heavily sprayed with pesticides. When the bees pollinate the flowers, they also take some of these pesticides back to their hive, and this accumulates there. A study by Tosi, Burgio and Nieh shows that honey bees have impaired fly ability due to the use of pesticides in agriculture. Another study by Wu, Anelli and Sheppard shows that the development of bee larvae to bees is negatively affected by pesticides, causing the development from larva to worker bee to take longer than normal. The pesticides also affect the adult bees, thus affecting the entire colony.
Importance of bees
Bees are an important animal species for the entire ecosystem in which they live. The bees pollinate plants, which allows the plants to reproduce. These plants are eaten by other animals. Without bees, many plants will no longer be able to reproduce, causing other animal species to lose their food source and also die out. But the bees themselves can also be eaten by animals, such as the bee-eater and skunks. These will thus also lose their food source if bees die out. However, bees are also important to us. Bees pollinate a third of our daily food supply. Without bees, we will therefore have a shortage of fruit and vegetables and prices will go up.
Save the bee
Because bees are so important to both the ecosystem and our food production, much is already being done to help them. For example, there are various organizations, such as Greenpeace and the bee foundation, that focus, among other things, on saving the bees. They also tell you how you can make a difference for bees yourself. For example, you can plant special bee flowers, but also hang a bee hotel or make a bee bath. Municipalities are also more active in the conservation of pollinators such as bees. For example, Utrecht has placed succulents on all bus stops to make the city greener. These succulents also attract bees, allowing them to get more food in urban environments and thus survive better.
So there is already a lot of research into how the bee can be helped at the moment, but there are also researchers who are looking at a future in which the bees are as good as extinct. One of these researchers is Dr. Eijiro Miyako, who works at the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. In 2007, he worked on a fluid that could be used for electricity conduction. However, he thought it was not good enough and decided to store the liquid in a cupboard. Years later, he found this liquid again, and the news about honey bees and robot insects gave him the idea to use this gel for pollen transfer. Thus, Dr. Eijiro Miyako to start working on robotic bees.
The robot bee where Dr. Eijiro Miyako is working on, is a mini drone of about two centimeters. This drone has four small propellers on the top and horse hairs on the bottom. The drones have also been successful in pollinating flowers. “I flew the remote-controlled drones with hair and gel over Japanese lilies,” says Dr. Eijiro Miyako, “The robots picked up the pollen, and then flew on to a second flower, where the pollen was released again. The drones without the hair and gel could not transmit pollen. ”.
During testing, Dr. Eijiro Miyako found out that the mini drones often damaged the plants while picking up or releasing pollen. He has already found a solution to this problem because he saw his son playing with bubbles. Since soap bubbles are soft, sticky and flexible, they would not damage the flowers. He then conducted research into this, which showed that they were indeed able to successfully pollinate flowers by means of a drone that made bubbles with pollen.
Although the development of the robot has come a long way and new technologies are constantly being developed, it is not yet ready to be used. One of the main obstacles is that the drone still has to be controlled manually. As a result, it is not yet possible from a practical point of view to use the drone to pollinate plants, because it requires too much manpower to pollinate all plants through manual control. The robot bee can only really be put into use when it can be controlled by artificial intelligence.
Better safe than sorry
Should the bees become extinct in the future, these robot bees could be a good alternative for pollinating the plants. However, it is important to remember that they cannot replace the bees themselves. The animals that have bees as a food source will run out of food and die, and some wild plants will no longer be pollinated. “I think we should think first of all about saving the natural pollinators, such as honey bees, that are suffering from climate change and pesticides caused by humans,” says Dr. Eijiro Miyako, “We have to keep a balance between nature and robotic approaches”. Since it is not inconceivable that bees will become extinct, an alternative must be available in case they do. But we should certainly not forget to still help the bees as long as they are still surviving. Prevention is better than curing.
Translated from Dutch