RoboBees to Save U.S. Agriculture ... in About 20 Years

If there are no bees left what will save agriculture? Robots, of course!

honey bee on a dandelion sandy bedfordshire 7002893894

What man breaks, man can fix … at least, that’s what we like to think. Consider, for example, bees. Bees of all species are dying off in the US and Europe and over the last few years we’ve seen the commercial beekeeping industry decimated by a syndrome called colony collapse disorder (CCD). 

Researchers have been looking for the causative factors of CCD for several years and the leading culprit is now believed to be the cocktail of pesticides used by the agriculture industry. The problem with this problem is simple: No one wants to give up their pesticides. Not Big Agriculture (the Agriculture-Industrial Complex), not the pesticide manufacturers (e.g. Monsanto and Bayer), and not the government regulators (specifically the Environmental Protection Agency). 

Despite mounting evidence that pesticides are to blame it looks like nothing will happen and bees, crucial to food production, the economy (bees are directly responsible for pollinating crops worth around $15 billion each year), and the pollination of thousands of species of non-agricultural plants, could go the way of the passenger pigeon. The concept of “better safe than sorry” is apparently not something any of these entities subscribe to.

So, how will we, mankind, fix this problem? According to some people the answer is robots, specifically robot bees. 

Just over a year ago, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard announced the “RoboBee”, a device smaller than a quarter weighing and just a tenth of a gram that could hover and follow a preplanned flight path. Since then the team that developed the RoboBee have improved the design (see Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees for an interview with Kevin Ma, the Harvard researcher developing the RoboBee technology).

Obviously the RoboBee has a long way to go before it can rival the abilities of real bees but according to the RoboBees Project:

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 while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.

What would the RoboBee of the future look like and how would it behave? Greenpeace broke out their crystal ball and gazed into the future:

GREENPEACE - NEW BEES from Polynoid on Vimeo.

The only flaw in the Greenpeace video is that the “New Bees” are missing a logo. For example:


Apple New Bee Mark Gibbs

These flying devices have lots of other potential applications. Again, according to the RoboBees Project:

Coordinated agile robotic insects can be used for a variety of purposes including:

  • autonomously pollinating a field of crops;
  • search and rescue (e.g., in the aftermath of a natural disaster);
  • hazardous environment exploration;
  • military surveillance;
  • high resolution weather and climate mapping; and
  • traffic monitoring.

So what could go wrong? The law of unintended consequences always comes into play (particularly when you think it won’t or, even more temptingly for the forces of fate, when you think it can't). Yep, my bet is on Killer RoboBees. What’s yours?


Note: I wrote about Bayer, the giant chemical company that sells the greatest volume of neonicotinoid pesticides and the suspicion that those chemicals are central to the Colony Collapse Disorder syndrome, in another publication way back in 2012:

Bayer produces nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids such as Imidacloprid. These products are harmless, in low doses, to humans but more or less lethal to bugs and while these chemicals can be applied safely, so it is claimed, the sheer scale of their use and the fact that not everyone who uses them is careful in their application is problematic. It now appears from three recent studies that even when used properly, where bees are concerned, these chemicals are toxic. Moreover, the Bayer products were approved by the EPA for use based on a study funded by Bayer which was later discredited by EPA scientists!

So, there was a lot of evidence that to pointed to Bayer pesticides as “a,” if not “the,” causative agent behind CCD.

Given Bayer’s profits or the possible extinction of bees which would you choose?

First, let’s consider what would happen if Bayer was to actually choose to stop selling neonicotinoids. If subsequent research shows that neonicotinoids aren’t the problem, Bayer will have lost a few hundred million dollars but gained a lot of goodwill for adopting a “better safe than sorry” policy. If that was the case then maybe there’s some way that Bayer could be compensated out of public funds worldwide. If, on the other hand, neonicotinoids are guilty as charged, then the consequences for Bayer would be far less harsh given that it appears they mislead the EPA in the first place.

Alternatively, let’s say Bayer refuses and carries on selling neonicotinoids which are ultimately found to be the problem. Now the combination of having mislead the EPA and not acting responsibly makes Bayer look really, really bad … Bayer could find itself in real trouble in every jurisdiction they operate in worldwide; every legislative body in every country would want a slice of Bayer’s corpse.

The smartest thing Bayer can do is to immediately halt sales of neonicotinoids and fund transparent, independent studies to establish the facts.

Of course Bayer did nothing even vaguely like the first option and subsequent studies have strongly implicated neonicotinoids:

A 2013 peer reviewed literature review concluded that neonicotinoids in the amounts that they are typically used harm bees and that safer alternatives are urgently needed. An October 2013 study by Italian researchers demonstrated that neonicotinoids disrupt the innate immune systems of bees, making them susceptible to viral infections to which the bees are normally resistant. (Wikipedia)

The European Commission has instituted a two-year ban on neonicotinoids and while the true cause of CCD is still unknown (see Bee Deaths Reversal: As Evidence Points Away From Neonics As Driver, Pressure Builds To Rethink Ban) as I noted above, the concept of “better safe than sorry,” something I’d guess every mother has told their children since the dawn of time (and since the temptation to poke things like saber-toothed tigers with sticks), is being conveniently (for business) ignored in the US. 

This story, "RoboBees to Save U.S. Agriculture ... in About 20 Years" was originally published by Network World.

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