Robots or bees?


Bees and flowers are 2 common characters in our story books. Those stories read that bees were very active and got up early in the morning to collect nectar. They even fell in love with the flowers. So these workaholics are no stranger to us from the beginning.

However, except for in the documentaries and movies, even I have seen only one real bee till now. It is now known worldwide that populations of bees are declining fast. What happened to these insects is still a mystery. There is very little information as to the cause of their decline. They have been infected with unknown viruses. They are attacked by other pests. Their resistance to these pathogens is decreasing drastically. A cure has not been found yet. What difference would there be if a small insect who can be very dangerous because of its sting, gets wiped out of the planet? There would be a huge difference!

Bees are a main pollinating agent. Pollination leads to the fertilization of the flower, and then the formation of the fruit. A large portion of food sources in the world are fruits of flowering plants. Most of the fruit crops require biotic pollination. Absence of the bees will leave the flowers without being pollinated, where they won’t be fertilized to produce fruits. Also, the bee’s honey is a valuable and a nourishing food source.

Today, the world is on the verge of a Food Crisis. The threat on these bees will have unimaginable impacts on food production, which plays a very important role in that context. This is already happening. Farmers who own large farmlands in US, Australia and even China are facing the problem of pollinating their crops. There are places that have been abandoned by bees for some time. They have no choice but to hand pollinate their crops if they want to get a harvest.

The oldest record of hand pollination was found from an ancient sculpture from Assyrian dynasty of 800 BC. It depicts 2 winged deities hand pollinating date flowers with a male flower. However, manual artificial pollination is not efficient enough. While research is going on to find a cure and a way to restore these efficient nectar collectors back to normal numbers, attention is given to coming up with devices that can automate hand pollination. Several models have been developed as an answer.

In February 2017, an article on a research project on this topic was published by the journal Chem. Japanese scientists have created a bee drone that can help in pollination. It is very small in size. Has the ability to move from a flower to another, and then collect and distribute pollen. There is an important chemical element in this machine. That is the Ionic Liquid Gel (ILG). It helps the drone to pick up pollen from one flower and leave them on another. Dr. Eijiro Miyako led the Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology research team that worked on this project.

ILGs display rapid color changes when mixed with photo-chromic organic compounds. similar to housefly specimens which gives them the ability to chase away predators. Further, effective pollen adsorption has been achieved by ILG-functionalized Formica japonica specimens of ants from Tulip flowers. Finally, with those results, a flying robot inspired by the honey bees was created. It can be be controlled by radio waves and is equipped with ILG-coated vertically aligned animal hairs that were used to successfully pollinate Japanese Lily flowers. It is believed that such materially engineered artificial plant pollinators can contribute to the development of high-performing robotics that will help solve the issues arising with the decline in honeybee populations.

While this small robot with a highly advanced technology where ILGs are being used was being made, Anna Haldewang came up with ‘Plan Bee’. She is an Industrial Design student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia. The drone is the size of a hand. It is black and yellow coloured. The device stores pollen in its body cavity and later release them for cross-pollination. There is a foam core, a plastic-shell body and two propellers that helps it to stay airborne. There are also six sections of the drone that meet at the bottom, all of which have tiny holes that let the machine gather pollen while it hovers over plants.

This drone is in its early stages. Anna hopes to have it on the market in 2 years. She has created 50 designs of a bee drone before coming to the final model. It does not resemble a bee in any way. She confirms that this was not designed to mimic the bee but only takes the idea of its activity to come up with a solution to the problem.

The idea of the robot bee sprang back in 2013 as well, when Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood came up with bee-size robots with the ability to lift off from ground and float in air when supplied with power. The researchers have spent years on developing  the model. They had expectations of improving the RoboBee project to apply the device in distributed environmental monitoring, search and rescue operations and also to assist with crop pollination.

Despite of all these man made models, nature is still at its lead. We have not been able to even get close to the natural wonders. Although the argument is true, there is no option but to try because humans themselves have disturbed those creations. These bees are at such grave danger that numbers are very hard to be restored sooner.

The whole world is at risk because of the man. Various insecticides, aerosols and even the high pollution from motor engine and industrial smoke are assumed to have weakened the systems of these tiny beings.  Hence they are more vulnerable to diseases and infections. This has a major effect on agriculture. Without the bees there’s no one to pollinate flowers to turn them into fruits! So man-made machines are expected to fill the gap.  We cannot wait any longer. Half of the world is already suffering from hunger.

If the world runs out of its natural resources and mechanisms at this rate, we will have to face so many obstacles. Sometimes, science and research is the only way to find an answer to these problems, both long term and short term. While searching for a cure, we can let in a substitute to do the job during the absence of the bees. However, if at anytime they recover, and by that time a machine has succeeded in achieving efficient pollination, steps must be taken to stop the operation of those machines and let the nature carry on its work. This must be done at any cost.


Miyako E. , Tange M. et al, Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators at

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