The bees are not all right. Their populations in the United States, as well as worldwide, have rapidly declined in recent years likely due to pesticide use, disease, and climate change. It is unclear what causes one of the factors at play, colony collapse disorder, and how it works, but bees are definitely falling in numbers.

Now researchers in Japan are tinkering with insect-sized drones — with horsehairs on their backs and a special gel allowing them to pick up and release pollen grains — that may soon work alongside bees to pollinate plants and improve crop yields.

The system is not autonomous, has not been tested outside the laboratory, and nowhere ready to be transported to agricultural missions but could usher in a generation of automated pollination methods in the face of dire bee colony declines.

How It Works

Pollinators play a crucial role in the reproduction of plants. Flowers that look to get pollen from their male parts into another bloom’s female parts need them, usually critters such as bees and butterflies, for transport.

The team of Eijiro Miyako from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan used this very principle of cross-pollinated in bees to devise a pollen-transporting drone. With the task requiring much effort and time, the team explored the use of a spray machine, but this yielded low success rate due to the potential severe denaturing of pollens and flower pistils from the “strong mechanical contact as the pollens burst out of the machine,” they wrote.

“It’s very tough work,” shared chemist and senior author Miyako, delving on the difficulty of making a free-flying robot insect that can run from its own power source without wire attachments.

So he contributed an innovation to the research: a special sticky gel, which coats the horsehair. When the robot flied onto a flower, pollen grains lightly stick to this gel and then rub off on the next flower being targeted.

Based on experiments, the 15-gram, 4-centimeter-wide drone managed to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies, with the soft animal hairs not causing any damage on the pistils or stamens once the drone landed on the flowering plants.

Prospects For The Pollinating Drone

The team is now eyeing the development of autonomous drones to help farmers out on the fields. The drones will likely require GPS, high-resolution cameras, as well as artificial intelligence to independently make their way to the flowers and land on the correct sports.

“[B]ees and drones should be used together,” Miyako said, hoping to help address the problem of declining bee populations with this combination.

There is likely a lot of work needed before this comes into fruition, since small drones would have to be made more maneuverable as well as energy-efficient, but this can be a spark of hope for animal pollination, which is necessary to reproduce 90 percent of flowering plants and one-third of human food crops, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service stated.

Bees are chief among these pollinators, but they are not in the best place right now. Just last month and for the first time in U.S. history, the rusty patched bumblebee that was so prevalent two decades ago officially became a struggling bunch.

The newly designated endangered species, buzzing on the East Coast and a large portion of the Midwest until the 1990s, are found only in scattered groups in 13 states today.

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