Image; Eijiro Miyako

The bees are dying globally at an alarming rate. As we continue to come to grips with the problems of our dystopian future, it’s probably as good a time as ever to dream up some solutions with an idea straight out of the dystopian show Black Mirror: pollinating drones.

We rely heavily on bees and other species to pollinate our plants, and though there isn’t global data, there have been enough local die-offs to spark widespread concern, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Now, a team of scientists from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan have engineered drones featuring a specially-engineered adhesive that can pick up and deposit pollen.

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The team is not looking to replace natural pollinators, but to assist them in their pollination efforts. They think that in a future, when bee populations are lower, drones like these might be able to relieve the stress of having to do all of the pollination.

“TV programs about the pollination crisis, honey bee decline, and the latest robotics” so, probably not Black Mirror, “emotionally motivated me,” Eijiro Miyako, chemist from AIST, told Gizmodo in an email. “I thought we urgently needed to create something for these problems.”

Miyako’s drone started with a decade-old bottle of sticky gel from a past experiment he found while cleaning his lab. The so-called ionic liquid gel is composed of a collection of complex molecules joined together in long chains, and has the optimal stickiness to pick up pollen grains. The group performed a number of tests with their gel, like rubbing it on ants and flies and having the bugs hang out around flowers. Each bug ended up covered in pollen grains.

Then, the group prepared a 2-inch G-Force PXY CAM remote-controlled drone, by gluing animal hair to the bottom and covering the hair in their goo. The drone could effectively pick up and deposit pollen grains by knocking into the flowers, said Miyako. The group published their results today in the journal Chem. 

The pollinators aren’t quite ready for our dystopian future, yet—they’re still quite hard to control, said Miyako. Plus, the team used remote controls and only tested the drone on one kind of flower—it’s not like the drone crawled inside, as would be necessary to pollinate certain crops. I asked whether he was concerned about whether the drones might harm other animals or bees. He wasn’t. “I think they might be familiar with our robotic drones soon,” he said.

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One researcher, (or beesearcher) I spoke with was excited about Miyako’s work. “It’s a really neat paper,” Noah Wilson-Rich, founder and chief science officer of the Best Bees Company, told Gizmodo. His company, which supplies businesses with beehives and collects data on the best habitats for bees, likes interdisciplinary approaches. Biologists study bees and their behavior, physicists and engineers study the drones, and “now you have the chemists to make it all even better,” he said. “It’s a global problem. Everybody eats food, and bees equal food right now.”

Wilson did point out that the study specifically calls out the popular honeybee, but the honeybee is just one of 20,000 species of bees, and one of 200,000 species of pollinators. However, he appreciated that Miyako worked with non-bee species like ants and flies to emphasize that bees aren’t the only ones supporting our food system.

But others don’t see robotic drones as a realistic solution to humanity’s pollinator problem. Biologist David Goulson from the University of Sussex in the UK pointed me towards his blog, where he wrote on Tuesday that we should “look after [bees], not plan for their demise:”

I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots?

If conservationists used the same drones that Miyako did, that would equal up to $100 dollars per bee—which would mean a whole lot of money to replace even a single hive. Miyako said that reducing the cost was very important to him.

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Regardless, we know we have a pollinator problem, and we rely on these little insects to pollinate 70 percent of our crops, according to a report prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Whether or not drones should be a part of the solution, we know that humanity has to do something—after all, the bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.

[Chem]