A bee or a bee droid? That is the question

Technological advances enable robots and drones to pollinate plants — but what does this mean for insect biodiversity?

Honeybee with pollen on Aloe arborescens flower

Insects, birds and even mammals help to pollinate plants, but their populations are declining rapidly. This has been attributed to various factors, including intensive farming practices, the use of agrochemicals, an increase in pests and pathogens, habitat loss and degradation, and higher temperatures associated with climate change.

Bees are the most common pollinators, and the annual rate of loss of bee colonies is estimated to have risen to as much as 40%.

What are the alternatives?

There are several innovative alternatives that farmers and researchers are exploring using robots, drones and artificial intelligence. For example:

  • Renting bee hives: Where resident bee populations are depleted, farmers rent bee hives for pollination when crops are flowering.
  • Using drone propellers to create a downdraft of air: This shakes the flower, causing the pollen to move to another flower.
  • Delivering pollen to flowers in a soap bubble: This can be done using a miniature drone or using robots on the ground that are targeted to specific flowers.
  • Creating an insect-sized drone to artificially pollinate flowers: The ‘bee’ has a patch of horse hair bristles to collect pollen and liquid gel to enable it to collect and transfer the pollen to another plant.
  • Using artificial intelligence and deep learning techniques to detect and identify the flowers so the drone can fly from one flower to the next.

Droids are not meant to replace insects, merely to fill in a pollinator role while we work to restore their populations again.

How can we restore bee populations?

Currently, there are a myriad of initiatives involving conservationists, farmers and researchers to try and increase pollinator populations.

Actions that can be taken include the following:

  • Growing plants and trees that attract bees and other insects
  • Planting indigenous trees to help with reforestation and restoration of habitat
  • Avoiding the use of harmful pesticides and other agrochemicals

What if we don’t succeed?

There are some things that robots cannot do. After all, pollination only occurs as a by-product of an insect’s activity and its place in the food chain. Robot bees do not produce honey nor do they provide food for skunks, bears, beetles or birds.

Artificial pollination is currently used mainly for human food crops but pollination is also necessary for wildlife habitat and food, both of which are also diminishing due to deforestation.

The loss of pollinators has dire consequences from a biodiversity perspective.

The decline in bee and other pollinator populations worldwide has created not only a potential crisis in food security, but also an environmental problem. Many of the factors that have decimated bee populations are also responsible for other environmental consequences like the loss of insect biodiversity due to habitat loss and the use of agrochemicals. Recent studies indicate that almost half of the world’s insect species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction.

This threat to biodiversity cannot (yet) be solved through machines and artificial intelligence.

“The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades …. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic … as insects are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems ….” — Francisco Sánchez-Bayoa & Kris AG Wyckhuys in Biological Conservation Journal

Writer, explorer and lifelong learner

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