Photo courtesy of Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon
Photo courtesy of Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon

Could Robot Bees Help Save Our Crops?

RoboBees are swarming, responding to a problem so alarming that President Barak Obama created an action plan for no less than the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Interior. If RoboBees sound like they are more likely to be “vs. Godzilla” than a great friend to the good food movement, read on.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the phenomenon of a dramatic worldwide reduction in honeybees, threatens crops that depend on pollination by bees going about their business collecting nectar to make honey. That’s about a third of the food we farm. No bees, no pollination, no food.

The White House considers this potential $15 billion problem so vexing that Obama last month issued a presidential memorandum creating a Pollinator Health Task Force, enlisting several federal departments including State and Defense to save the bees. The Task Force will examine the many potential causes of CCD, including increased use of toxic pesticides, disease, and certain beekeeping methods. The message: CCD is serious business.

To stay optimistic on this planet I have to believe that most agree that saving honeybees is vastly preferable to replacing them but an interesting alternative is coming out of Harvard. On its website a research team led by engineering professor and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Robert Wood states “we do not see robotic pollination as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder. If robots were used for pollination—and we are at least 20 years away from that possibility—it would only be as a stop-gap measure….”

Tiny, Robotic Bees Could Change the World

Listen to Emerging Explorer Robert Wood discuss the RoboBee concept

For more than a century humans have created highly engineered machines to supplement our own labor in agriculture; with rapidly advancing technology, can humans create machines to supplement small animals’ labor? Some find the mere inquiry ominous, although machines have supplemented large animal labor for some time.

Last year Harvard announced the first flight of the RoboBee, half the size of a paperclip and more than a decade in the making. While RoboBee is still connected to a thin cable for power and lacking the in-development brain capable of performing bee-like behavior, its aerial launch was significant as detailed in the journal Sciencejournal Science.

As its creators explain in a Scientific American articleScientific American article, RoboBee’s complex flight mechanisms had to fit within a tiny and lightweight body suitable for flying and potentially carrying pollination loads or other items like video cameras. (Cue Obama’s evolving executive order on drone privacy, although whether RoboBees could be legally defined as drones is very much in question.) Its creators have pointed to RoboBees’ uses outside of agriculture, such as in search and rescue missions; 10,000 RoboBees flying nimbly over a broad area could locate victims much more efficiently than human power. The White House Task Force will surely track RoboBees’ development.

View Images
Photo courtesy of Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon

Obama’s much-buzzed-about beehives in the White House garden will still suffer from CCD though. Only real bees can make honey (although so much honey is counterfeit these days, perhaps only a sad few would notice). But with the pace of technology development, Obama’s successor could be enjoying the fruits—if not nectars—of Harvard’s research while we work to stop CCD.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.