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The Collapsing Bee Population
During the winter of 2006-2007, beekeepers began to notice a remarkable and unusual loss in their beehives that reached 30-90% of their total hive populations. This phenomenon, which is now understood as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)1, occurs when a large number of working bees within a colony disappear or die and leave only a few immature bees to care for the queen. This dramatic loss in bees can have serious deleterious effects on the pollination of various crops.
Some reasons that have been noted as contributing factors of CCD include:
- The invasive varroa mite, a common pest of bees
- Bee diseases (e.g., Israeli Acute Paralysis virus, gut parasite Nosema)
- Pesticide poisoning
- Habitat Loss
- Habitat changes
- Inadequate forage/ poor nutrition
Limitations of Alternative Pollination Processes
The transportation of healthy bees from one location to another is one of the many alternatives proposed to combat the problems associated with CCD. However, this option has the potential to spread possibly infectious disorders to new bee populations. Additionally, researchers have considered hand pollination as potential ratification of CCD, which is a process by which humans harvest pollen and brush it on trees and crops.
Despite the efficacy of this option, the labor costs and small scale of this process as compared to traditional pollination methods severely limit its practicality.
The Resolution of Flying Robotic Drones
Image credit: Shujaa_777
In March of 2017, Japanese researcher Eijiro Miyako at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology introduced his design of an insect-sized drone that is capable of artificially pollinating crops to solve the CCD and bee death epidemic. The main principle of his design revolves around a specialized liquid gel that exhibits a unique adhesive quality that allows objects equipped with the gel to lift and stick again, which is ideal for the continuous transportation of pollen from one plant to another.
Through a series of experiments used to evaluate the biocompatibility and eco-friendliness of the gel, Miyako’s team determined that the gel is safe for plants and animals. Additionally, this specialized gel also is capable of changing color upon exposure to different types of light sources, which serves as a protective mechanism of the robotic insect against potential predators.2
One unique prototype of the robo-bee was designed by an industrial design major, Anna Waldewang, at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Comprised of a lightweight foam core, a plastic-shell body, and propellers, the Plan Bee has six different sections of the device that all take in pollen from flowers as they hover over it3. Plan Bee then stores the acquired pollen in its body cavity before it is later expelled for cross-pollination.
In addition to the use of robotic insects for potential uses in crop pollination, researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have developed RoboBees, which they hope will be able to function beyond agricultural purposes and assist in search and rescue missions, surveillance and high-resolution monitoring of the climate and environment. At about half the size of a paperclip and a weight that is less than one-tenth of a gram, the RoboBee is composed of a material that contracts when a voltage is applied to it4.
The RoboBee was developed through the use of innovative techniques including Pop-Up microelectromechanical (MEMs) technologies. Future developments of the RoboBee are expected to allow this device to transition from swimming underwater to flying, as well as place itself on surfaces by manipulating static electricity of the area.
- “Colony Collapse Disorder” – The United States Environmental Protection Agency
- “Rise of the Robot Bees: Tiny Drones Turned into Artificial Pollinators” – The Salt
- “This ‘bee’ drone is a robotic flower pollinator” – CNN
- “Autonomous Flying Microrobots (RoboBees)” – Wyss Institute