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The small drone helps cross-pollinate plants by grabbing pollen with its tiny hairs covered in a sticky solution and rub if off on another flower. This small drone is not a permanent replacement for pollinating bees. (via National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology)

 

I swear I saw this on an episode of “Black Mirror.”

 

Though many of us find bees to be a nuisance especially when they sting you, they’re actually an important part of our ecosystem. Because of pesticides, land clearing, and climate change, bee populations have been dwindling as of late. It’s so bad, the rusty patch bumble bee became the first bee to be endangered earlier this year. This is a huge problem because the species not only provides delicious honey, but they help to pollinate flowers, which is needed for reproduction in flowering plants. Without it, we stand to lose more than our bee friends. But before you start stocking up on honey, Japanese researchers may have found a solution.

 

Eiiro Miyako from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has developed a drone that helps pollinates flowers. They used the bases of cross pollination for the device, which is the transfer of pollen from one plant to another. Though it has advantages over self-pollination, it still requires pollen getting stuck to bees and other insects when they feed on flowers. This clearly cannot happen with the bee population dying. So Miyako and colleagues want the drone to do some of the hard work.

 

The drone is quite small measuring four centimeters wide and weighing only 15 grams. The drone grabs pollen from plants with the horsehair which is coated with a special sticky gel that covers the bottom of the device. After the bot grabs the pollen, it then rubs it off on the next flower it visits. So far tests have shown the drone was able to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies without damaging the stamens or pistils thanks to the soft animal hairs.

 

Right now the drone is controlled manually, but Miyako and his team are currently working on making the drones autonomous letting them help farmers pollinate their crops. The drones need to be outfitted with a GPS system, high-resolution cameras, and some AI to help them track their way between flowers and land on them without causing damage. Miyako notes this isn’t a permanent solution to the bee shortage. Nor is he trying to replace the insects with robots. Rather, he believes the two should be used together.

 

While it’s a novel and intriguing idea that sounds like it could work, others aren’t so certain. Saul Cunningham from the Australian National University in Canberra saying using drones isn’t economically feasible. He cites the sheer amount of flowers a crop can produce and questions whether drones can really handle them all. Also, you have to consider the finances. These drones will cost money and depend how expensive they are to produce, some sort of cost may be handed down to farmers, which can harm them more than helping them.

 

So what’s the right way to help preserve our bees? Better management by using fewer pesticides, raising plants that can self-pollinate, or rely on machines that can spray pollen over corps. When you think about it, these solutions make more sense than a pollinating drone, but it doesn’t stop the idea from sounding cool.

 

 

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