Robotic science may (or may not) help us keep up with the death of bees

10 March 2017

share this:

Credit: SCAD

Beginning in 2006 beekeepers became aware that their honeybee populations were dying off at increasingly rapid rates. Scientists are also concerned about the dwindling populations of monarch butterflies. Researchers have been scrambling to come up with explanations and an effective strategy to save both insects or replicate their pollination functions in agriculture.

Photo: SCAD

Although the Plan Bee drones pictured above are just one SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) student’s concept for how a swarm of drones could handle pollinating an indoor crop, scientists are considering different options for dealing with the crisis, using modern technology to replace living bees with robotic ones.Researchers from the Wyss Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard introduced the first RoboBees in 2013, and other scientists around the world have been researching and designing their solutions ever since.

Honeybees pollinate almost a third of all the food we consume and, in the U.S., account for more than $15 billion worth of crops every year. Apples, berries, cucumbers and almonds rely on bees for their pollination. Butterflies also pollinate, but less efficiently than bees and mostly they pollinate wildflowers.

The National Academy of Sciences said:

“Honey bees enable the production of no fewer than 90 commercially grown crops as part of the large, commercial, beekeeping industry that leases honey bee colonies for pollination services in the United States.

Although overall honey bee colony numbers in recent years have remained relatively stable and sufficient to meet commercial pollination needs, this has come at a cost to beekeepers who must work harder to counter increasing colony mortality rates.”

Florida and California have been hit especially hard by decreasing bee colony populations. In 2006, California produced nearly twice as much honey as the next state. But in 2011, California’s honey production fell by nearly half. The recent severe drought in California has become an additional factor driving both its honey yield and bee numbers down as less rain means less flowers available to pollinate.

In the U.S., the Obama Administration created a task force which developed The National Pollinator Health Strategy plan to:

  • Restore honey bee colony health to sustainable levels by 2025.
  • Increase Eastern monarch butterfly populations to 225 million butterflies by year 2020.
  • Restore or enhance seven million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

For this story, I wrote to the EPA specialist for bee pollination asking whether funding was continuing under the Trump Administration or whether the program itself was to be continued. No answer.

Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology scientists have invented a drone that transports pollen between flowers using horsehair coated in a special sticky gel. And scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex (UK) are attempting to produce the first accurate model of a honeybee brain, particularly those portions of the brain that enable vision and smell. Then they intend to create a flying robot able to sense and act as autonomously as a bee.

Bottom Line:

As novel and technologically interesting as these inventions may be, the metrics will need to be near to the present costs of pollination. Or, as biologist Dave Goulson said to a Popular Science reporter, “Even if bee bots are really cool, there are lots of things we can do to protect bees instead of replacing them with robots.”

Saul Cunningham, of the Australian National University, confirmed that sentiment by showing that today’s concepts are far from being economically feasible:

“If you think about the almond industry, for example, you have orchards that stretch for kilometres and each individual tree can support 50,000 flowers,” he says. “So the scale on which you would have to operate your robotic pollinators is mind-boggling.”

“Several more financially viable strategies for tackling the bee decline are currently being pursued including better management of bees through the use of fewer pesticides, breeding crop varieties that can self-pollinate instead of relying on cross-pollination, and the use of machines to spray pollen over crops.”

tags: , , , , , , , ,

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

Related posts :

#ICRA2022 networking events

This year at ICRA there were great number of opportunities to involve and engage as well including networking events.
04 July 2022, by

ROS Awards 2022 results

The intention of these awards is to express recognition for contributions to the ROS community and the development of the ROS-based robot industry, and to help those contributions gain awareness.
02 July 2022, by



Origin Story of the OAK-D, with Brandon Gilles

Brandon Gilles, the founder of Luxonis and maker of the OAK-D, describes the journey and the flexibility of the OAK-D line of products
01 July 2022, by

The one-wheel Cubli

Researchers Matthias Hofer, Michael Muehlebach and Raffaello D’Andrea have developed the one-wheel Cubli, a three-dimensional pendulum system that can balance on its pivot using a single reaction wheel. How is it possible to stabilize the two tilt angles of the system with only a single reaction wheel?
30 June 2022, by and

At the forefront of building with biology

Raman is, as she puts it, “a mechanical engineer through and through.” Today, Ritu Raman leads the Raman Lab and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
28 June 2022, by

Hot Robotics Symposium celebrates UK success

An internationally leading robotics initiative that enables academia and industry to find innovative solutions to real world challenges, celebrated its success with a Hot Robotics Symposium hosted across three UK regions last week.
25 June 2022, by

©2021 - ROBOTS Association


©2021 - ROBOTS Association