Vision

Busy as Bees

As bee colonies continue to die around the world, researchers are developing artificial, bee-like drones. However, they will only be able to replace their natural counterparts to a limited extent.

Photo: Eijiro Miyako

As bee colonies continue to die around the world, researchers are developing artificial, bee-like drones. However, they will only be able to replace their natural counterparts to a limited extent.

Imagine that the pollination of nearly all crops and wild plants were no longer possible. The consequences for humanity would be dire, particularly with respect to food. Honey and grain would become astronomically expensive overnight; the produce section in supermarkets would look like a wasteland. It’s a horror scenario that biologists in particular are even now running theoretical simulations on. Why? Because bees, which are responsible for pollinating around 80 percent of our crops—and are thus irreplaceable in our ecosystem—are dying off in droves.

Scientists assume that both the use of agricultural insecticides and the spread of mites and viruses play a role in this. That’s why efforts are again being focused on protecting nature’s bees. Increasing numbers of cities are ensuring that new buildings are topped with greenery. But the negative global trend remains.

Eijiro Miyako and his colleagues at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, in Japan, are approaching the problem from a technological angle. In order mitigate the loss of actual bees, the team is researching artificial drones that, like bees, can carry pollen to plants. Unlike the drone bee in nature—a male whose only job is to fertilize the queen—this artificial drone is truly busy, doing the female bee’s work: pollinating plants.
While the tiny quadcopter drone doesn’t look anything like the insect it’s imitating, it behaves like one. Its underside is equipped with  horsehair  and a special gel, which allows the drone to pick up pollen and drop it off at a different plant.

The researchers plan to integrate a high-resolution camera and artificial intelligence into the drones. But exactly how all this necessary technology will fit onto a mini-drone remains to be seen. Biologists therefore believe that the drones will instead be used in environments for which regular bees are unsuited—the laboratory, for instance. Out in the natural world, there will hopefully still be buzzing for quite some time.