Are robobees the answer to disappearing honeybees? Tiny mechanical creatures with complex algorithms that allow them to triangulate flowering plants may soon populate farms and meadows. In the fields across the world the wild bees are disappearing. The likely culprit is the heavy use of pesticides; but what are people to do without bees to pollinate their food? Are bee robots the solution or another symptom of the mindset that caused the problem?
Can real, live bees be replaced with robotic bees? Bees have been designed through millennium of evolution to have a perfect symbiotic relationship with flowering plants. Scientists believe that bees developed approximately 120 million years ago. In 2006 etymologists in Burma discovered a 100 million year old bee preserved in amber which supported theories about the long evolution of bees. It seems that bees and flowering plants have evolved in conjunction with each other. Flowering plants are among the most diverse type of organism to ever exist. There are currently thought to be 400,000 angiosperms (flowering plants) alive in the world today. They are also a relatively young form of plant. The first land plant is believed to have originated 450 million years ago, but the oldest known angiosperm is only 130 million years old. Flowering plants came into existence roughly the same time as bees. How instrumental has the bee been in creating new species of angiosperms and for shaping its current biodiversity? Bees affect evolution by pollinating plants; they cause new plant species to be created and let other species die out. If bees are almost as old as flowering plants they certainly could have caused the development of the plant genomes of today.
Many people forget that plants propagate through sexual reproduction. The purpose of their pretty petals are to protect the sexual organs, the pistil (ovary) and stamen (sperm), as well as to attract pollinators. The job of a pollinator is to bring the stamen to the pistil of different plants to create genetic diversity and keep a species strong. The resulting embryo, or seed, grows inside the ovary which becomes what humans term a fruit. Not only the common summer delights such as strawberries, peaches and tomatoes are fruits, but wheat, potatoes and beans are also angiosperms. In fact, almost every plant that people eat are flowering plants. Even the grasses and corn that feed livestock are angiosperms. Therefore, it could be argued by some that our entire existence may depend on the small and humble bee.
The honeybees have been experiencing colony collapse for many years now. Bee keepers from around the United States report a 30 percent to 90 percent colony loss. These bees are used to pollinate food crops and fruit trees as well as to make honey. Recent studies have placed much of the blame on a prevalent new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. A neonicotinoid is a nicotine-based insecticide that works on the central nervous system. It has a much greater effect on invertebrates than on mammals, which makes it popular. Also, farmers can spread it directly onto the soil and avoid insecticide drift. The neonicotinoid is highly water soluble and plants drink up the pesticide with the water, making them toxic to bugs. However, large amounts of the neonicotinoid build up in the soil and have an adverse effect on bees, worms and birds – exactly the creatures that aid crop production. The neonicotinoid may not kill the bees directly, but the effect on their nervous systems may disrupt their usually superior navigation and swarming behaviors. Bees navigate using the sun and dance to show other bees the source of food. When these behaviors are interrupted the bees may get lost and starve. This could explain why they are dying in the millions, why whole colonies are disappearing, and why masses of dead bees are turning up around the world.
Although many scientists implicate the pesticides, others point to climate change or parasites. Still others state it is a mystery that is not yet solved. Since there is no clear target there may not be an easy solution. Step in the robobees. Are robobees the answer to disappearing honeybees? Some engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences think so. They are creating a small agile robot that mimics the bees’ behaviors but can operate more efficiently and reliably. In addition to pollinating crops, the robobees may assist in search and rescue missions, hazardous environment exploration, surveillance, mapping and traffic monitoring. Is it practical to build billions of tiny robots to replace the bees? Over a million colonies in the United States and billions of bees worldwide have disappeared. How are enough robobees, which are not even in production yet, going to be manufactured to replace wild bees?
The other big question is whether Americans will accept the idea of robobees. Last week new studies were released that show neonicotinoids and other pesticides were also decreasing bird populations. Many commentators are calling it a “second silent spring” in reference to Rachel Carlson’s work with DDT and birds, most notably bald eagles. Carlson’s book convinced Americans to ban most DDT, and the bald eagle is one of the great success stories of an animal making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Americans have another choice to make now. Do they look to robobees to solve the honeybee problem or do they dig deeper into the causes of colony collapse and work on bringing back the natural bees? 120 million years of mutualistic evolution between bees and flowering plants hang in the balance.
Are robobees the answer to disappearing honeybees? They could prevent mass starvation by pollinating food crops in the short term, but some say they are not a real solution to the environmental havoc humans are perpetrating on the world. Next are they going to develop robot flowers and robot trees to go along with the robot bees? For many, that is a frightening proposition.
By: Rebecca Savastio