Scientists Develop Drones to Pollinate Plants Just Like Real Bees

February 26, 2017

Engineers are working on autonomous drones which can artificially pollinate plants. It is a well-known fact that pollinators like bees play a critical role in the life cycle of most plants. It is an almost as equally known fact that bee populations are in decline in many places around the globe. The issue has sparked interest in technologists to develop a drone capable of artificially pollinating plants.

A team of engineers from National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) recently developed a drone which can pollinate lilies. The research paper was recently published in Chem.

$100 drone used to artificially pollinate plants [Image Source: Science Mag]

Making an artificial pollinator

It only takes a quick walk through a bloom of flowers to realize how easy it is to displace pollen from a plant. Some people may also recognize the wind’s ability to pick the small particles up and blow them directly into their nose where they cause an irritating allergic reaction.

Removing or even collecting pollen is not a difficult task. What is, however, is developing a material able to gently pick the spores and fly them safely to the next plant and allow the plants’ life cycle to complete. Creating such a delicate system was no easy task. Although the team of engineers from ASIST believes they have found a solution.

The team attached horse hairs to the underside of a drone to brush off the pollen from the plants. Although, the hairs serve only as a brush to move the pollen around. To collect the pollen, the team had another trick up their sleeve. By applying a thin coating of an ionic gel to the hairs, the pollen sticks to the ends of the tips. Although, the gel is designed to pick the spores up with a minimal amount of force, allowing them to pick up pollen from one flower and still be able to release it onto another plant.

The secret sauce behind the stick

As is with many great inventions, the discovery of the ionic gel used for the artificial pollinators came by as an accidental product of an experiment gone wrong. Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at AIST, Nanomaterial Research Institute, was developing a liquid intended to be used as an electrical conductor. Instead of a conductive liquid, Miyako instead created a gel as sticky as hair wax. At the time, he considered the experiment to be a failure.

A decade later during a lab cleanout, the substance was rediscovered in an uncapped bottle. From first glance, the material appeared to be completely unchanged. With inspiration from the decline in pollinating insects, Miyako began to investigate whether the gel could be used to extract and distribute pollen.

“This project is the result of serendipity,” says Miyako. “We were surprised that after 8 years, the ionic gel didn’t degrade and was still so viscous. Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can’t be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research.”

They will not replace bees (yet)

The artificial pollinators will not be able to replace bees. Instead, the engineers behind the project hope it can assist in carrying the burden of a continuously growing food demand.

Bees have an incredible bond with the entire ecosystem. The incredibly hard-working insects make it possible for 30 percent of the world’s crops and a staggering 90 percent of our wild plants to survive.

It takes nearly 900 bees to gather enough nectar to produce just one kilogram of honey. To make a kilogram of honey, nearly 4.5 million flowers have to be visited. A single colony of bees may have more than 60,000 worker bees (undeveloped females) with several hundred drones (male bees) at a single time. In its short lifespan of just six weeks, a bee will only collect about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

 

[Image Source: Zeynel Cebeci via Wikimedia Creative Commons]

Artificial pollinators are nowhere near the capability of replacing a bees job. It would take tens of thousands of drones working around the clock to spread the same amount of pollen as a bee does. What they can do, however, is help pollinate more crops as the human population continues to grow. The drones do not need to spend time delivering nectar. Instead, the drones only need to worry about staying charged.

Of course, there are many issues which will need to be investigated before mass scaling. First of all, the drones will need to be biodegradable in case of an accident. Secondly, the drones cannot interfere with other pollinators. Unfortunately, the drones are far from a solution. They are, however, functioning small-scale pollinators which will be under investigation as an emerging technology. While they are not particularly useful now, perhaps they can be used in greenhouses, potentially on other planets.

How we can save the bees

Humans will never be able to replace bees entirely. Unfortunately, since the late 1990’s, beekeepers around the world observed a substantial disappearance of bees. It was only a couple years ago when scientists made the discovery that certain pesticides were killing bees. Since then, the chemicals have been banned in many countries. Although, more efforts will be required to fully restore bees and other pollinators to their former glory.

If you discover a colony that may be disturbing you, do not kill it. First of all, it is incredibly dangerous. Secondly, if you contact a local beekeeper, they will be more than happy to collect the bees (generally free of charge!). Bees have also been known to collect in massive swarms as they move nests. They can appear in many places, including on your car! Last year, an elderly woman was followed by 20,000 bees for nearly two days. The colony was moving and its queen became trapped in the car. Fortunately, she contacted a beekeeper who safely removed the bees and relocated them.

Saving the bees is not difficult. The primary step is ensuring your government has a ban in place against any bee-harming pesticides. The next step is ensuring there is a bee protection act in place to prevent bees from becoming threatened again.

Bees and other pollinating species play a vital role in ecosystems. For humans, this includes the production of a third of all our food. In an economical view, bees pollinate an estimated U.S. 281 billion dollars worth of plants annually. So despite the ecological value, it really pays to protect the bees.

The incredible process of turning nectar into honey

Bees are an incredible species responsible for pollinating many of the world’s crops. We rely on them for food, and for their sweet honey. They are truly fascinating creatures. Honey is the main food supply for a bee. They collect vast quantities to feed their hives over the winter.

A bee has two stomachs specifically for this purpose. One is to digest food, and the other is to regurgitate nectar into honeycombs within a hive. Tens of thousands of bees work together to process the nectar into the delicious treat many people have come to enjoy. The entire process is remarkable; you can learn more about it from the video below.

SEE ALSO:Biomimicry: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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