‘Drone Bees’ Show Pollination Potential As Bee Populations Keep Declining

Drone bees may be lending a helping hand in the pollination process, what with actual bee populations still trending downwards.

A report from the Los Angeles Times looked at a new breakthrough from a group of Japanese scientists who were able to create a remote-controlled pollinator from a basic drone. This was done simply by using a special gel to treat horsehairs, then sticking them onto the underbelly of the drones. The researchers believe that their creation, while still far away from being ready for public use, may be a key step toward automating the pollination process, and perhaps picking up the slack as the world’s bee populations keep declining at a rapid pace.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service show that 90 percent of all flowering plants and about a third of crops used for food require animal pollinators such as bees. That’s where the drone bees may potentially be of use, as bee populations in America have been gutted significantly over the past few decades. Some of the reasons behind this include the use of deadly pesticides, climate change, and the presence of invasive species.

In a study published this week in the journal Chem, researchers discussed how there are currently alternative ways to deal with the lack of pollination caused by declining bee populations. But, as a passage from the study quoted by the L.A. Times said, many of those methods aren’t very effective, and may ultimately be too risky in some cases.

“One pollination technique requires the physical transfer of pollen with an artist’s brush or cotton swab from male to female flowers. Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort. Another approach uses a spray machine, such as a gun barrel and pneumatic ejector. However, this machine pollination has a low pollination success rate because it is likely to cause severe denaturing of pollens and flower pistils as a result of strong mechanical contact as the pollens bursts out of the machine.”

The idea of drone bees had been thrown around before, but researchers hadn’t come up with a way to make them live up to their name, acting as “free-flying robot insects” with their own independent power source, and no need to attach them to a wire in order to operate. But the researchers, who were led by National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology chemist Eijiro Miyako, were able to solve this conundrum by using a gel in lieu of a wire.

The L.A. Times wrote that the discovery was purely accidental, as the gel was borne out of one of Miyako’s failed experiments. This gel was, instead of being a fluid as intended, “as sticky as hair wax,” and kept in a bottle in a storage cabinet for about a decade. Miyako then found the bottle, and saw that the gel was still in its original state. He also found that the gel was capable of absorbing huge amounts of dust when it was dropped on the floor. That led Miyako to theorize that it could be used to collect pollen grains as well.

After conducting some successful experiments with ants, Miyako and his colleagues sought to test the gel out on what would become the so-called “drone bees.” In an attempt to imitate the fuzzy texture of bees’ bodies, the researchers coated horsehairs with the gel, and attached them underneath a four-propeller drone priced at about $100. The drone proved capable of collecting pollen from one Japanese lily and depositing it at another, just as the pollination process is supposed to work with actual bees.

Although Miyako is confident that the robotic bees could one day complement real bees in pollinating flowers, there have been some critical reviews of his group’s study. In an op-ed for Newsweek that is currently unavailable on the publication’s website, yet syndicated by Yahoo News in its original form, Douglas Main warned that the drone bees are “wildly expensive, ineffective, and dangerous to real bees.”

The “ineffective” part was particularly stressed in the op-ed, as Main pointed out that the 53 percent pollination success rate is way too low for lilies, which are easy flowers to pollinate. He added that the drone bees tend to “slam into the flower(s),” thus making them “comically” ineffective at doing their job.

[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]