Alarm bells are ringing for bees and they are only getting louder. Bee populations have declined rapidly in recent years due to climate change, diseases, and pesticides; affecting wildlife, agriculture, and the economy since bees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. every year.
And on the subject of pollinators, bees are unbeatable creatures. However, engineers and scientists try to mimic their peculiar ways anyway. Researchers have been working on a high-tech alternative that uses drones to blow pollen-laden soap bubbles to pollinate flowers.
Blowing bubbles to pollinate flowers
The idea came to Eijiro Miyako, a materials chemist at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, while he was blowing bubbles with his 3-year-old son. That was not the first time he was meddling with bees, drones, and flowers, however.
In 2017, he and his team had adapted a 4-centimeter-long toy drone to pollinate flowers by gluing horsehairs underneath it and coating it with gel to make the hairs stickier. While the hairs were able to pick up pollen from one flower and deposit it on another, it damaged the lilies significantly, rendering it unusable in the long term.
The answer was a toy bubble gun
Adamant on fixing it ever since, the turning point for the innovation was a toy bubble gun. On that park, watching the stream of bubbles drifting through the air and one of them bumping onto his son's forehead, Miyako was struck with this idea of delicate bubbles delivering the pollens.
In order to test this idea, he and another colleague looked at numerous surfactants and picked one with the least effect on germination.
Experimented on pear flowers
Afterward, pear flowers were bombarded with bubbles that were laced with pollen. When the bubble made contact with the flower, it popped and pollen landed on the female reproductive part, the grains growing pollen tubes.
However, Miyako stated that probably due to an adverse effect caused by the soap solution, the tubes were shorter than normal in cases where 10 bubbles hit the pear flower.
The research was also done in a pear orchard, using the toy bubble gun. Traditionally, the farmers in Japan pollinate their pear and apple trees by hand, using a feather brush since bees don't pollinate in low temperatures and sometimes might harm the flowers, resulting in deformed fruits.
Apparently, the resulting fruit from the bubble gun was just as tasty as of flowers pollinated by the farmers.
Might have good effects on the economy
Moreover, the bubbles required a lot less pollen than feather brushes. According to the figures, the bubbles need only 0.06 milligrams while a feather brush needs 1800 milligrams.
While this upside could help in regards to the economy, it only works without the involvement of robots, at least, yet.
Drones are a no-go at this point
Miyako also worked with robots by attaching a bubble sprayer to an aerial drone and made the drone fly around fake lily flowers.
What they found was that, while the drone could hit 90% of the flowers with bubbles, it wasted a lot of pollen.
A drone that can identify flowers might solve that problem, and Miyoko states that he is working on concocting an environmentally safe soap bubble solution that would biodegrade faster.
What does this say about the future?
These sorts of innovations are definitely futuristic, and drone bees sound like a Black Mirror-ish nightmare; however, large scale pollination may not be a reality anytime soon.
In a future where we've successfully killed all the bees or trying for agriculture on Mars, they might come in handy, but as of now, they might give false hopes to farmers and policymakers, stopping them worrying about the fate of bees and causing the bee population to decline further.
So while such smart solutions might be needed on occasions like the pear flowers, saving the bees from extinction is still our best bet for a better, sweeter, and greener future.