With the worldwide bee population in crisis suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), robotic bees may be science’s solution.
As previously reported in January 2014, Harvard’s Micro Air Vehicles (MAV) Project is creating mini-robotics dubbed Robobees.
The artificial bees are designs to emulate the same flying capabilities of bees as well as other insects. (1)
Declining Bee Population Threatens Future of Humankind
Inspired by the hive behavior of bees, engineers of insect robotics believe they may have the solution to the dwindling bee population that is threatening the world’s crop production. A popular quote attributed to Albert Einstein states, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”.
Whether or not Einstein really said this is debatable, but the fact remains that without bees, the pollination needs for most of the world’s food crops would come to a screeching halt. (2)
Currently, 30% -50% of the world’s bee population has disappeared. Another Top Secret Writers article published in February 2013 discusses the dramatic loss of honey bee colonies in North America. At first, scientists attributed the decline to mites, but later revised the cause to include several possible explanations, such as cell phone radiation and the most currently assigned cause of CCD–harsh chemicals and pesticides associated with GMO crops. (3)
Two studies concluded that neonicotinoid pesticides set up an interference within the honey bees’ homing processes that not only disoriented the bees so severely that they were incapable of finding their hives, but they also wandered off and eventually with no hive to maintain, died.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Pesticide Peer Review found three neonictoinoid insecticides, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam “pose an unacceptable hazard to honey bees”.
With the bee population on a steady decline for almost a decade, the impact is already being felt. For example, the American Bee Journal reported in 2013 that farmers, such as those in California, might not have enough honey bees to pollinate their crops.
The California example is startling. The number of bee colonies needed for adequate pollination of the state’s crops is 1.6 million. As of 2013, the California bee population had decreased to only 500,000.
How Robobees Could Save Crops and Humans
Researchers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, led by Robert Wood who is the Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, are working on the far-reaching benefit of Robobee colonies. The scientists would program the bees to work in crop fields, mimicking the functions of real honey bees by pollinating the crops.
The team is hopeful it will eventually be able to create autonomous robot bees. For now, the technology doesn’t exist for the mini-bee robots to act and respond independently.
“We aim to push advances in miniature robotics and the design of compact high-energy power sources; spur innovations in ultra-low-power computing and electronic ‘smart’ sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines.” (4)
Some researchers have asked if mechanical pollination is as effective as that done by nature’s perfect mechanism – honey bees. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in August 2010 comparing the pollination using wands versus pollination by bees, the answer isn’t simple.
Pollination of tomatoes achieved by using a vibrating wand versus pollination by bees demonstrated that nature does it best. The results concluded that the tomatoes pollinated by bees showed “improved seed set and consequently, higher fruit weight”. (5)
Another significant difference in the two methods of pollination was provided by the taste testing of a “large, untrained panel”. The panel “significantly preferred bee-pollinated over wand-pollinated tomatoes and classified bee-pollinated tomatoes as having more depth of flavor than wand-pollinated tomatoes. Thus, bee-pollinated tomatoes taste better than wand-pollinated tomatoes”.
The scientists concluded that the reason for the difference in the taste was the “effects of pollination treatment on seed numbers”. In other words, the more seeds the tomato had, the better the taste factor.
It is highly probable that in a famine situation such taste differences in the crops harvested will quickly become a luxury that doesn’t factor into the survival benefits. The simple fact that Robobees could possibly counter the devastating effects of the Colony Collapse Disorder of honey bees by providing a means to grow food remains a very real possible solution. The only obstacle facing scientists is the technology development that can make it all a reality.
However, to the average person, the most obvious solution to the CCD epidemic is to stop using the harmful pesticides currently cited as the cause. Whether or not the bee population could rebuild and recover is unknown.
References & Image Credits:
(1) TSW: As Bees Go Extinct, Harvard Develops a Robotic Alternative
(2) Benefits of Honey
(3) TSW: Saving Honey Bees: EU Commission Confirms Impact of Pesticides
(7) autan via Compfight cc