As the number of bees continues to decline worldwide, Japanese scientists are investigating whether tiny drones can deliver pollen to flowers, and thus mimic the insect’s role.
The drones have shown to be successful at flying between lily flowers and collecting the pollen, just like a bee. The pollen is collected through the use of an ionic liquid gel that covers the drones.
In a paper published in the research journal Chem, the scientists behind the drone bees say they were motivated by the current pollination crisis. “The decline in honeybee populations is a global issue with significant repercussions with respect to the pollination of plants,” they said.
Earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service placed the rusty-patched bumblebee on the endangered species list for the first time, due to its dramatic population decline over the past 20 years. Since the late 1990s, the population of the species has plummeted 87 per cent.
Meanwhile a study released by Lincoln University has stated that New Zealand agriculture risks losing between $295m and $728m a year if the local honeybee population continues to decline.
The Chem scientists hope that the robot pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths by using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence. “Such materially engineered artificial plant pollinators should lead to the development of high-performance robotics that can help counter the decline in honeybee populations.”
While being hailed as a good first step, others are sceptical whether the drones can sufficiently replace the role of bees. Australian Honey Bee Industry Council executive director, Trevor Weatherhead says that he is doubtful whether the technology could be employed on a commercial scale, “This little machine will certainly pollinate, but how many would you need for say, 1,000 acres,” he told ABC. There are also questions as to how the machine would navigate pollinating smaller flowers.