Bees, Bees?! Alabama Professor and the Rise of the Robot Bee: How Drones Can Change Farming Forever

Photo: Alabama Public Radio
Photo: Alabama Public Radio

Honeybees, the bane of those who like warm weather, have been dying off at alarming rates across not only the United States but the world. Considering that these insects help to pollinate most of the world’s crops, the extinction of the bees would cause a global disaster of biblical proportions. That might sound like an exaggeration, but virtually every human being on the planet relies on food that would cease to exist without nature’s little pollinators.

Now, University of Alabama bumblebee expert Dr. Jeffrey Lozier is trying to figure out how we got here.

Why Are All the Bees Dying?

Lozier has created a team to study the link between the bee’s environments and their genetic mutations. He explains that it is not yet understood what exactly is causing the decline in the world of bees, but he believes genetic adaptations could explain part of it.

While genetic variations are to be expected in any species, Lozier’s goal is to pinpoint specific changes in their genome that may relate to temperature, air density, and precipitation. His goal then is to develop a solution to the problem, and thus help as many bees as he can.

Lozier won a $1 million National Science Foundation grant that allowed him to study bumblebees all along the western United States.

California, in particular, is struggling from the lack of bees. The Golden State is home to many different crops, from almonds and alfalfa to tomatoes and oranges, and farmers across the state have been struggling to produce sufficient crop yields in the last decade. Primarily, that’s because of the sudden and dramatic die off in bee colonies.

Last year alone, the United States lost a full 44% of all honeybee colonies.

Thousands of acres of crops were there, just waiting to be pollinated, but there were no bees to do so.

How To Survive in a World Without Bees?

One forward thinking bee researcher has developed an idea that will bring the pollen to the plants, but without the bees.

Eijiro Miyako, researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, has come up with an idea that perfectly mixes futuristic technology with old-fashioned farming: the Robot Bee.

The Robot Bee is a plastic drone the size of an insect that can pollinate multiple plants at a time. Coated with horse hair bristles, it uses an ionic liquid gel to collect and transfer pollen from crop to crop. This gel will never lose its stickiness, which means there is no limit to the amount of crops it can pollinate in its “lifetime.”

These bee-sized drones have four propellers and a plastic body, and if they hit the American market, they will be available for around $100 each. Of course, the average bee colony contains thousands of insectoid drones, so the technology wouldn’t come cheap.

Even so, this invention brings up a whole new set of exciting possibilities. In the United States, the plastics industry is the third-largest manufacturing industry, but an army of flying pollinating drones could open up a whole new market.

That being said, many insect experts say that the ideal solution would be to find a way to save the

“On top of more practical arguments, such as costs to smaller farms,” Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, told Alabama Public Radio. “I would not like to live in a world where bees are replaced by plastic machines. Let’s focus on protecting the biodiversity we still have left.”

And the best part? These drones don’t sting.

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