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Are Robobees The Artificial Pollinators of the Future?

by | Apr 6, 2024 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Can technology offer a solution to our growing biodiversity crisis? And are robot bees the future of agriculture?

Not too long ago, a mysterious affliction called colony collapse disorder (CCD) began to wipe out honeybee hives, informs Juliet Ferguson in her article Beyond robobees: can technology really help halt the biodiversity crisis? from July 2022. “These bees are responsible for most commercial pollination [in the U.S.], and their loss provoked fears that agriculture might begin to suffer as well.”

Often, we see scientific articles about the arrival of the robobees, describing a darker future where drones, instead of real insects, do the pollinating. The so-called BrambleBee, which pollinates plants using a robotic arm, was developed in 2018 by the University of West Virginia, US. An Israeli tech company, named Arugga, commercialised a bee-like robot able to pollinate in tomato greenhouses. This robot is also set to work in Finland, where the long dark winter days make it hard for bees to pollinate crops. This ‘bee’ will not only do the hard work but also collect plant health data, helping farmers to come up with better treatment.

More recently, both the University of Stirling in Scotland, and the University of Massachusetts, USA, have received funding to build tiny robots that can reproduce bees. In an Investigate Europe interview, Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, said, “We’re not looking for a mechanical way to replace what thousands of bee species around the world do.” The goal, he clarified, is “to understand why it is important to conserve different types of bees.”

The conservation of bees has been a growing concern which has gathered wide popularity. According to the UN, almost three-quarters of the world’s most essential food crops are pollinated by bees, but numbers are falling as industrial agriculture expands and rampant pesticide use persists. It is estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species face extinction in Europe, while European beekeepers warn the colony numbers have declined over the last decade and a half.

Biology Professor at the University of Sussex Dave Goulson, agrees with Vallejo-Marin that the robotic bees can never be a good replacement for real bees. “The biggest thing that insects do is actually not pollination, but recycling,” he says. “They recycle any kind of dead material: something which a robobee wouldn’t do.”

The world will need trillions of robobees to replace all natural pollinators, according to Alan Dorin of Monash University in Australia. This is an unrealistic and economically impossible process.

Critics argue that it’s not only the diversity of plants, birds and insects that is threatened by today’s agricultural system, but also the farmers themselves. It’s reported that farmers become less and less in numbers as they have less and less profits. “We see that our rural areas are under threat,” says Green MEP Bas Eickhout. “The impact of climate change is affecting our farmers and we see the loss of biodiversity.”

As hopeful as the robobee technology may sound, there are many drawbacks to it. In his article The Problem With Robobees from December 2020, Alan Dorin points out several reasons why the swarms of tiny bee robots would be an ecological disaster. He reminds that the world will need “an uncomfortable number of robobess to replicate the already existing insects’ pollination benefits.” Other issues include the fact that this technology would cost a lot of money and only wealthy growers will be able to afford them. The manufacture of robobees is also, as Dorin says “environmentally damaging” as broken or damaged specimens will litter and pollute wildlife and so far, are not built as biodegradable or recyclable.

Technology like the robobees is expected to be of great help, hypothetically, but it is just a small part in the pressing need for a change in the system and it is certainly not a full replacement of what nature has been doing for millions of years and keeps doing. That’s why, Dorin adds, “instead of designing robobees, creating environments friendly to biological bees and exploring the use of other insect species for pollination are more ecologically sound approaches to tackling world food production problems.” This doesn’t mean humanity has to do away with technology altogether. It just means it has to support insects and the ecosystems they exist in. Not replace it. Nothing the human mind can create could replace the perfect clockwork of nature as it is.

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