artificial bees

Insects might one day have help pollinating plants: tiny artificial bees. Four scientists in Japan have developed what could be at least a partial solution to the rapidly dwindling number of pollinating bees. / J.D. Vivian

Four scientists in Japan have come up with what they hope is a solution to the rapidly growing problem of bee-colony declines: tiny artificial bees.

In the Feb. 9 issue of the Cambridge, Mass.-based scientific journal Chem, Guillermo J. Amador and David L. Hu sum up what the scientists are working on: “(Svetlana) Chechetka et al deliver pollen via a remote-controlled robot covered in hairs and a sticky goo.”

Amador and Hu express concern about the serious decline in the number of bees and why they need help. “Bees worldwide are dying. At their current rates of decline, robotic pollinators might become our only option. More than 20,000 bee species exist, but only 2% are responsible for pollinating 80% of plants.”

Hand pollination is pricey

The problem is especially serious in China, according to the authors. There, “the high market value of pears and apples … has made it economically favorable to use pesticides, creating insect-­free regions that can only be hand pollinated.”

Pollen delivered by robots has the potential to reduce costs. That’s because the cost of hand pollination is directly proportional to the area that has to be pollinated. “In the United States alone, hand pollination of apples would require $880 million. A high­-tech pollination method using robotic insects is therefore highly attractive,” says their article, titled “Sticky Solution Provides Grip for the First Robotic Pollinator.”

Renting bees creates problems

Due to the increasing instances of “bee-colony collapse disorder,” more and more farmers are renting honeybee colonies. Yet that, too, has disadvantages, the authors state: “It creates stress and spreads disease through parasites such as the Varroa mite, a tick for bees. It is responsible for the global spread of deformed-wing virus among bees, one of the reasons for their decline.”

A robotic pollinator is basically a flying robot, like a drone. These robots are called “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) or “micro­aerial vehicles” (MAVs). The ones Amador and Hu discuss are tiny — about the size of a bee.

Short battery life, lack of guidance hamstring artificial bees

One main problem is supplying the tiny ‘bots with power. “Batteries have not kept up with mini-manufacturing, and current robots are tethered to an external power source by a long cord.” Another problem is lack of an effective guidance system: “the robots themselves are generally blind. They are driven by external sensory systems such as off­-board video cameras.”

So don’t expect to see tiny artificial bees delivering pollen anytime soon.

The artificial-bee story began 10 years ago, when one of the four scientists, chemist Eijiro Miyako, created an “ionic liquid gel that is sticky and, like engine oil, is terribly hard to wash off fingers,” Amador and Hu write. He put the gel aside and forgot about it.

Then, years later, Miyako heard about robotic flying insects and “considered how he could build one that could be used for artificial pollination.” He brought out the jar of special gel.

A drone gets modified

After doing preliminary testing using ants and tulips, Miyako tested the gel on a “quadrotor, an inexpensive helicopter with four blades” — in other words, a drone. Then he set out to modify the smooth plastic helicopter so that its sides would function more like the 3 million hairs on the body of a bee.

“The pollen wedges itself between the hairs of the bee like a baseball in a glove,” wrote Amador and Hu. Miyako aligned horse hairs vertically, then coated them with his gel. He discovered that “the combination of vertical orientation and gel coating improved pollen attraction and transport.”

Bees need help, and soon

In January, the rusty patched bumblebee became the first wild bee to be listed as “endangered.” The Trump administration has delayed that designation, however. / Courtesy of Xerces Society

In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the rusty patched bumblebee an “endangered species” — the first wild bee in the U.S. to earn that designation. The rusty patched bumblebee’s range once covered 28 states and went as far south as northeastern Georgia. Since 2000, it has been reported in only 13 states, and only as far south as North Carolina.

As an endangered species, the rusty patched bumblebee would have been protected from activities that could hasten its extinction. That designation has been delayed because President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed a regulatory freeze.

Florida’s beekeepers have problems in addition to bee-colony collapse. Last year, a bee-rental company, Wonderful Bees, offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever had stolen about $150,000 worth of its bees from various sites in the state.

Those thefts remain under investigation.