To Bee or Not to Bee: A Concerning Question

by Violet Krochmalny, Indian River County Extension Staff Manager

Example of a prototype bee "drone" pollinating a flower.

Example of a prototype bee “drone” pollinating a flower.

We all know about the ongoing struggle of bee colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging populations of our favorite pollinators and you may have asked yourself, is anything being done to prepare for this? Well researchers have been diligently working on creating artificial pollinators (think drones the size of bees) and other concept methods for sustaining the modern worlds food production while the colony collapse crisis is studied and hopefully, rectified.

The methods of robotic pollination can vary greatly from synthetic flapping wings to gel coated bristles or the use of static electricity. It would seem that getting the pollen to stick is the easy part, the hardest part is developing a lightweight power source for these instrumental invertebrates. The bodies themselves also have to be light-weight, meaning they are incredibly fragile and prone to all kinds of environmental torment in their current prototype form. Currently there are five major league research groups working on robotic drones; Manchester University (UK), Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science (Japan), Wyss Institute (Harvard University) and Charles Stark Draper Laboratory (Cambridge University). Naturally we would be inclined to ask, “Is this really worth spending that much money on?”, and rightfully so, as a lot of research funding can be from our tax dollars. Do we Invest the money in new technology that has the potential to fail, or invest the money in saving and rehabilitating existing bees and their habitats? It’s a dilemma for sure and everyone is going to have their own opinion.

A worker hand pollinating trees.

A worker hand pollinating trees.

Expensive robo-bees are not the only “temporary” solution however. In fact the practice of artificial pollination is not really anything new for some countries. For example, in China human labor costs are currently less than the cost of renting bee colonies. Entire apple and pear orchards are hand pollinated by farm workers as an alternative to relying on local wild bees. This isn’t something that can be done on a mass scale though, so it’s still not an effective solution for the global pollination issue. To make things even more complicated, it’s now known that only specific species of bees can pollinate certain types of flowers. Some flowers even require a unique frequency to gain access to their pollen and only a precise buzz from the right species of bee can “unlock” them. With 20,000 different known species of bees throughout the world it’s hard to imagine robotic versions ever coming close to realizing the full potential of the real deal. Although as science fiction as it may seem, some big names are investing big money into artificial pollination and it’s a sure sign of the times. A key point of this topic though, is that any of these developed technologies are only a crutch to lean on for awhile and should never be considered a permanent alternative to natural pollination. We may admire our technological ability to cope with this situation but we should never underestimate the critically important role of natural pollinators and the support they provide to the foundations of our worlds ecosystems.

Wondering what’s in bloom this time of year? Or how you can eliminate pests and attract pollinators? Give your local Indian River County Master Gardener Extension Office a call at: (772) 226-4324 or visit the Florida Master Gardener website at: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/mastergardener/