Eijiro Miyako
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Using drones to distribute soap bubbles laden with pollen is one way to artificially pollinate plants if insects are in short supply.
Eijiro Miyako

Delivering pollen to plants that need it, one way or the other

To compensate for the loss of bees and other pollinating insects, scientists are experimenting with substitutes—like a bubble-blowing drone.

This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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A drone-blown soap bubble that carries pollen—that’s one technique being tested to pollinate plants if there aren’t enough insects to do the job.

Pollen Special Delivery

As populations of bees and other natural pollinators diminish around the world, scientists are experimenting with high-tech replacements. One early attempt by a Japanese research group was a sticky-bottomed drone that could carry pollen among flowers just as a flying insect would—but when the propellers got too close, they damaged the plants. Now the same group has equipped drones with sprayers that release pollen-laden soap bubbles from a distance. In tests, pollinating pear trees with bubbles produced fruit almost as effectively as hand-pollinating (sometimes used to boost fruit trees’ yield). Some ecologists say that such high-tech efforts are misguided and distract from the more important need to conserve bees and other threatened pollinators. For now, the research group is forging ahead: Next steps include developing a more biodegradable soap solution for minimal environmental impact and improving the drone’s bubble-spraying accuracy.

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Because many land snails and slugs of the Hawaiian Islands have gone extinct, the discovery of a new tree snail (above) was particularly good news.

Hail, snail: New species discovered

For the first time in 60 years, scientists have identified a new native land snail species in Hawaii. Among Earth’s most threatened animals, land snails and slugs account for 40 percent of known animal species extinctions since 1500. Hawaii has lost snails to invasive predators and reduced habitat. Finding the striped-shelled Oahu tree snail Auriculella gagne­ orum is a glimmer of hope for these natural recyclers and the conservationists working to protect them.

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Tidying Up in Fly Cells

New research has identified a critical enzyme in fruit flies that destroys proteins inherited from the mother as the developing embryos (above) start to make their own. Researchers named the decluttering enzyme Marie Kondo, after the Japanese tidying guru who helps people discard things that no longer bring them joy.