Editorial Feature

How Drones and Robotics are Mapping Bee Populations Around the World

Image Credit: Oleksandrum/Shutterstock.com

As the only insect capable of producing food for human consumption, the honeybee also plays a critical role in pollinating over 75% of flowering plants and crops in the United States alone. During the estimated 6 miles of travel performed by honeybees each day, this pollination process occurs when the pollen sac of one flower or crop sticks to a honey bee’s legs, which is then transferred to the next plant in which the bee sticks to.

Therefore, fertilization of the plants occurs when the pollen within these sacks spills out upon the bee landing on the plant1. While honeybees play an important role in these pollination processes, other wild insects like butterflies, other types of bees, wasps, and flies are also valuable contributors to this natural process2.

Since the late 1990’s, beekeepers around the world have noticed a steady decline in the populations of bees. Suggested to be a result of a variety of different issues including industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change, the overwhelming use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are the most direct and potent risk to honeybee populations2.

While the threats to bee populations are complex in nature, the ability of the honeybee decline to increase costs for farmers and eventually destabilize crop production is a universal concern.

In an effort to respond to this epidemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) invested $4 million in 2014 to improve the health of honeybees through ensuring the implementation of conservation practices across several states3.

While these methods have brought an increase in knowledge and effective new methods to farmers regarding their practices that affect honeybees, further research designed in developing new methods to facilitate the restoration of bee populations around the world is desperately needed.

A group of scientists at Harvard University’s Microbiotics Lab has developed what they term the “RoboBee.”A novel robot technology capable of adhering to a variety of surfaces through electrostatic adhesion properties, the RoboBee utilizes the science of static electricity and positive and negative charges to perch itself onto ledges and trees in order to conduct its mission.

As tiny bee-like drones, the RoboBee weighs just 100 mg and measures almost identical to the actual size of an insect4. This extremely small frame allows researchers to control the functionality of these robots and manipulate their low power requirements in order to conduct a large array of experiments.

While future applications of the RoboBee are expected to be used to explore dark tunnels for border control purposes, the original purpose of this mechanical bee was thought to replicate the honeybee’s behavior to autonomously pollinate crops5.

Similarly, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) industrial design student Anna Haldewang designed what is denoted as “Plan Bee” in an effort to respond to the declining bee populations.

The prototype for this project is a hand-sized yellow and black device whose plastic shell body, foam core, and propellers allow this device to remain airborne while simultaneously capable of taking pollen from a flower when it hovers over it6. This pollen is then stored in the body cavity of the drone until it is later expelled for cross-pollination.

Within the last five years, researchers estimate that nearly 30% of the national bee populations in the United States alone have disappeared at an alarmingly fast rate that continues to grow each year. This massive depopulation epidemic is of particularly high concern for farmers and agricultural workers responsible for the growth of many important products including blueberries, strawberries, and many different types of vegetables4.

At a natural contribution to some of the most nutritious crops available for human consumption, it is estimated that this decline in honeybee populations will lead to an estimated monetary loss of $30 billion each year in the United States alone.

Therefore, it is imperative that researchers continue to work towards enlightening the public on the threats presented to honeybee populations today, while also continuing to strive towards developing new and improved techniques in the mapping and improvement of honeybee environments around the world.

RoboBees use static electricity to stick on walls

References and Further Reading

  1. Garnier, Terace. "Declining Honey Bee Population Could Spell Trouble for Some Crops." Fox News. FOX News Network, 21 Feb. 2017.
  2. "The Bees in Decline." Greenpeace. Web. http://sos-bees.org/.
  3. “USDA Will Spend $4 Million to Help Honey Bees.” AG Web. Farm Journal. Web. http://www.agweb.com/article/usda-will-spend-4-million-to-help-honey-bees-associated-press/.
  4. Beck, Christina. “What can tiny robot bees do for us?” The Christian Science Monitor. 20 May 2016. Web. http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0520/What-can-tiny-robot-bees-do-for-us.
  5. De Jesus, Cecille. “MIT Researchers Give the Robot Bee a Major Upgrade.” Futurism. 21 May 2016. Web. https://futurism.com/mit-researchers-give-the-robot-bee-a-major-upgrade/.
  6. Kavilanx, Parija. “This ‘bee’ drone is a robotic flower pollinator.” Cnn Tech. CNN News. 15 February 2017. Web. http://money.cnn.com/2017/02/15/technology/bee-drone-pollination/.

 

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.

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