Honeybee Robots?

English: US migratory beekeepers loading tract...

English: US migratory beekeepers loading tractor-trailer load of bees for transport from South Carolina to Maine to pollinate blueberries. Français : Apiculteurs nord-américains chargeant des “ruchers itinérants” sur un semi-remorque pour les transporter de l’état de Caroline du Sud à celui du Maine pour la pollinisation d’espèces d’intérêt commercial (myrtilles en l’occurence) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t claim to have the most abundant flower garden at our home, but I think I saw fewer than about 50 honeybees all this year. And the bad news, as the media have reported now for months, is that this crash is going on worldwide.

Some of the news is vastly over-hyped. I’ve read accounts of how the loss of honeybees will cause massive human starvation since honeybees pollinate some 75 percent of our food crops. But fortunately this does not include wheat, maize (corn), and rice and other cereal crops, which are all wind-pollinated. And other insects also pollinate crops so our food supply is not totally dependent on honeybees. But some of those species are also in decline.

The most puzzling honeybee culprit has been colony-collapse disorder, or CCD. Apparently healthy colonies just disappear and/or die virtually overnight and the cause is still unknown. The good news is that this bee crisis has spurred major research efforts. We have documented that bee health and reproduction can be negatively impacted by such things as climate change, loss of native floral plants and floral diversity, viruses, fungi, parasitic mites and flies, and pesticides. This has led the European Union to ban three of the most critical pesticides, but political pressures in America have forestalled such. The French may be the world’s busiest researchers, and they have even perfected putting microchips on individual bees to track their behavior. The marked bees must pass under five different scanners as they leave and re-enter the hive, and the scanners permit an attached computer to record precisely how long each bee was gone from the hive. This has permitted definite data that even very small doses of pesticides can disrupt normal flight patterns.

But the newest — and perhaps strangest — work aimed at amelioration of the problems is the development of tiny robots to mimic bee pollination actions. The Nov. 16 issue of the journal New Scientist reviews this work — I confess it strikes me as a most unlikely cure. Even if we make robots that do the job of pollinating individual flowers, could we possibly make them in sufficient numbers to really make a difference? What’s the cost?

A pollinating robot must mimic, of course, what a bee does. That means they must locate the flowers of select crops, find their way to and from them with a high degree of precision, enter the flower (at various depths, depending on the plant species), collect pollen, and then convey it to adjacent flowers of the same species, again entering the flower to dump the pollen. And given the size of bees, this is a tough act to follow. But scientists are trying, and with interesting results.

So far, robots the size of a dragonfly, and even some the size of a bumblebee, have been developed. They don’t have their own brains — that has to be supplied by an electronic wire to a computer, which also supplies the power source.

Some robots are not intended to do pollinating. Rather they are designed to be monitors of the health of the hive, mingling among the bees to measure and report on their health, telling beekeepers when there’s a problem that needs attention. And in any given hive, when the population becomes too crowded, a large proportion of the bees will exit to find a new home. Beekeepers don’t want that to happen until they have a new hive available. The monitors can alert them when such swarming seems imminent.

So maybe robots can help, and I certainly wish the designers the best of success. Because even if robots can pollinate or monitor, they can’t make honey!



About Admin

Been a Beekeeper for 20 years
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