Tiny drones are being turned into artificial pollinators. For bee lovers, this is potentially sad news. For commercial farmers, it’s probably great news.

Take the 1,400 almond trees in Capay Valley, near Esparto in central California. They are flourishing in a one-hundred-year old orchard with a view of the surrounding hills. Their branches are now starting to swell in readiness for pollination in the soon-to-come growing season. The owner depends on bees to pollinate his almond crop.

The fact that bee mortality rates have been increasing worries farmers with crops that heavily depend on pollinators.

This 3:01-minute video shows a National Geographic robot-bee project:

Scientists are busy trying to find ways for plants to reproduce without bees. Eijiro Miyako is a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. He has designed tiny robots that are coated with horsehair bristles and ionic liquid gel and can collect and transfer pollen from plant to plant. He thinks they may become a partial solution to the pollination crisis in the future.

Miyako says that conventional gels are water-based usually, so they lose their sticky factor over time. His ionic liquid gel is non-volatile and has enduring “lift-and-restick” adhesive abilities. This is ideal for moving pollen from flower to flower.

After performing tests on several other pollinators from ants to houseflies, his next focus was on bee-sized drones. The four-propeller drone was commercially available for about $100 each. The team was able to verify that fertilization was successful by using fluorescent microscopy to see pollen was glowing in test tubes. This was an exciting moment for them, since hand pollination is time-consuming and tedious, with only about 5-10 trees daily being pollinated.  

Still, there are many obstacles to sending out armies of robot pollinator bees, considering there are about 1 million acres of almond trees needing to be pollinated in California alone. Each flower must be pollinated so 2 million bee colonies are trucked in, with 10,000-20,000 bees per colony. Imagine how many robot bees would be needed.

Since there are over 20,000 bee species worldwide, each has unique body shapes and sizes as well as unique flight patterns, so they can enter different flowers. Tomatoes are best pollinated by bumblebees, for instance.   

Although Dr. Eijiro Miyako’s bee robot proto-type is a work in progress, it holds promise for the future and could be a co-operative ally of the bee. But he strongly advises us all to protect our natural pollinators, so we don’t have to replace them with plastic machines someday.

How do you feel about this news? This may be a wake-up call for us all. If we truly value our favorite pollinators, busy bees, maybe now’s a good time to help them be healthier again.