Robot Bees Could Help Save Crops

Flying pollinators to the rescue

  • Researchers are working to build microrobots that simulate the buzzing of bees. 
  • The robots will be used to study buzz pollination, in which a bee’s buzz shakes the pollen out of the flower.
  • More than one-third of the world’s crop production depends on bee pollination.
An electronic insect on a flower.

txpeter / Getty Images

Robot bees could one day help pollinate crops amid rising concerns about a worldwide decline in insect populations that has the potential to wreak havoc on food supplies. 

Researchers in the UK and the US have been awarded a grant to build microrobots that simulate the buzzing of bees. The tiny robots are the size of a  fingernail and weigh a quarter of a honeybee. 

"They will allow us to control the vibrations—their pitch, force, and timing—and simulate bees' interactions with flowers in order to really understand how the characteristics of the bee and the buzzes affect pollination," one of the grant recipients, Mario Vallejo-Marin, an associate professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, said in the news release. 

RoboBees?

The researchers say that 20,000 plants, including many food crops, rely on buzz pollination, in which a bee's buzz shakes the pollen out of the flower. Gaining a better understanding of which flying critters buzz best and how they do it could improve agriculture. 

But until now, the only way to recreate the buzz process has been with a mechanical shaker weighing more than four pounds. The new project is intended to turn heavy shakers into small robots that more closely resemble a bee buzzing a flower. 

Bee populations worldwide are in decline, but the researchers say their work is not to create robotic substitutes for bees but to better understand pollination and the diversity of bee species.

"In Australia and Southern Africa, for example, they need buzz pollinating bees for pollinating some fruit crops," said Vallejo-Marin. "But bumblebees are not native there, so they can't be used in agriculture as we use them in Europe, and farmers have resorted to using electric toothbrushes to pollinate tomatoes."

Vallejo-Marin's project is one of several recent efforts to make bee robots. Researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands are working to create flying bee machines. The current prototype bee robot can fly for six minutes. 

"The robot has a top speed of 25 km/h and can even perform aggressive maneuvers, such as 360-degree flips, resembling loops and barrel rolls," Matěj Karásek, the principal designer of the robot, said in the news release

"One out of every three bites of healthy food we eat is pollinated by honey bees and other pollinators."

Bee Smart About Insect Declines

Experts say that if you like food, you should love insects and bees. More than one-third of the world's crop production depends on bee pollination, a 300 percent increase over the last 50 years.

"Insects are the foundation of our ecosystems," beekeeper and author Charlotte Ekker Wiggins told Lifewire in an email interview. "One out of every three bites of healthy food we eat is pollinated by honey bees and other pollinators."

A 2019 worldwide insect study concluded that at least 40% of all insects might become extinct in the next few decades. However, Rayda K. Krell, a biology professor at Western Connecticut State University who studies insects, told Lifewire in an email that it's too soon to state definitively that creepy crawlies are declining worldwide. 

"Generally, we do think that in a big-picture context, insect abundance and diversity is decreasing," Krell said. "Estimates put it at about 1 to 2% decline per year. But, in some areas, where we see rising temperatures, there are indications of some species increasing in range and abundance because of the expansion of ideal environmental conditions." 

A bee keeper working with the frames in a hive.

Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

Allen Gibbs, a life sciences professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Lifewire in an email interview that insect die-offs are due to a loss of habitat through conversion of land to agriculture and deforestation. Climate change is also a factor. 

"A more important problem is water. Insects are inherently sensitive to water loss, and temperate and tropical forests have been getting drier," Gibbs said. 

While researchers are looking for tech solutions to the problem of fewer insects, Wiggins said that there are natural remedies that could keep bees flying. Reducing the use of insecticides is critical. 

"Rethink mega-agriculture and return to buying from local small farmers," Wiggins said. "Rethink our US standards of lawn "beauty" and move away from perfection to one of balance. Lawns should be homes to insects, not wastelands."

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