As well as giving us many a turn of phrase – make a beeline, busy bee, queen bee – these social, hardworking insects play a critical role in agriculture and maintaining our plant life. They are the world’s main insect pollinators, transferring pollen from flower to flower and between plants, ensuring fertilisation and continued crop growth. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fibre such as cotton – all these and much more require pollination, thus, rely on bees for their survival.
It’s caused international concern, though, that in recent years the bee population globally has been steadily declining. The increased use of pesticide in agriculture and urban areas is a major cause, as well as developments and changes in land use, affecting their food resources and where they nest. There is even more disturbing phenomenon, which has become known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD results in the complete disappearance of the bees, leaving just an empty hive. Millions of bees have vanished. Scientists have yet to confirm any definite theory behind this mystery, but think it may be related to a variety of reasons from pesticide, fungi, parasites and viruses.
But what is no mystery is that bees are crucial to our ecosystem. So crucial, in fact, scientists have been taking this issue seriously enough that mechanical engineer Robert Wood, leading a team from Harvard University, developed the first RoboBees. As the names suggest, they are bee-size robots that can fly, though they do need to be connect to a power supply. The journal Science published further details, explaining that presently it can only take 20-second flights. Further advancements continue to be made as researchers gain more understanding on the mechanics of how insects fly. The aim is that perhaps within 10 years these RoboBees could take on the job of real bees and pollinate crops – a necessary scientific breakthrough as the plight of the honeybee continues.
So this summer, perhaps next time a buzzing uninvited guest makes an appearance at your picnic, you’ll look on them a bit kinder. It is said that bees account for nearly one-third of the food we eat, and though this may be hard to quantify or prove, what is in no doubt is they are definitely working hard for us. They don’t call them worker bees for nothing.