Pollinating drone bees can’t replace honey bees, ecologists calculate

The successful demonstration of remote-controlled "drones-bees" from the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands has been in the news since Tuesday. However, according to at least two independent estimates by biologists, the buzz surrounding UAV applications could be very excited.

Many Popular News Websites reported that university drones-bees could replace real bees in pollination if they disappeared, but that could be optimistic. First, it is not economically feasible to mass-produce robot insects. Second, there is a flaw in understanding the science of pollination.

The Netherlands is one of the largest exporters of food and agricultural products in the world. While bees continue to pollinate 80% of the edible crops grown there, their populations are constantly threatened by pesticides. Some experts warned that the country's 360 bee species were endangered.

Enter the drones developed by the researchers of the TU Delft . Bee robots have a wingspan of 33 cm, weigh 29 grams, can flap wings 17 times a second and generate enough lift to stay in flight. They control their flight by making minor adjustments in the movement of the wings. The University Press Release states that these features allow drone bees to fly overhead and fly in all directions. But they are not quite the same as real bees.

The Guardian reported that the robotic insect can only fly for six minutes, or one kilometer with its current battery. They are also about 15 times larger than actual bees, although the university plans to reduce their size in the future.

Addressing Telegraph Matěj Karásek, a researcher working on the project, said: "The goal is to have a device for pollinating flowers because the bees will die … if you can imagine. a swarm of these robots flying around a warehouse or greenhouse, they would be very safe to work because they are so small and so light. He added that they hoped to be able to produce the drone en masse for it to be used worldwide.

Although drone bees are truly futuristic, their use for large-scale pollination may not be a reality any time soon. First, making these robots on a scale large enough to replace real-life bees may not be an effective solution.

David Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK, discusses the feasibility of using drone bees for large-scale pollination, writes an article of blog . year. His calculation revealed that if building a single bee (a ridiculously impossible assumption) cost just one penny, it would cost 32 billion pounds ($ 45 billion) to replace each honey bee. the world. He wrote :

Although I can see the intellectual interest in trying to create robotic bees, I would say that it's extremely unlikely that we could ever produce anything so cheap or so as effective as bees themselves … just take the numbers; There are about 80 million honey bees worldwide, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees in spring and summer. This represents 3,200 billion bees. They feed for free, breed for free and even give us honey as a bonus. What would be the cost of replacing them with robots?

Even if we reduce ambitions and believe Karásek that drone bees can contribute to pollination in greenhouses, there is another major obstacle: botany.

Manu Saunders, a community ecologist based at the University of New England, Australia, argues that supporting true pollinators would be a more viable long-term solution. One of the main problems that it raises is that pollination is a natural phenomenon and that its success often depends on many factors too complex for a drone to mimic it. As she says in her blog post published in April ::

The success of pollination often depends on where the pollinator has gone before: pollen from other plant species can reduce pollination success, pollen from other varieties of the pollinator same plant species can affect pollination in different ways and bacteria or fungi that naturally live in the nectar. other flowers may affect the reproduction of another flower. The management of these natural interactions goes beyond the scope of a drone.

Saunders adds that many crops require multiple visits of different types of pollinators (insects, animals, birds, etc.). It is only after multiple attempts, she noted, that the proper pollen can successfully fertilize the flower to produce fruits or seeds. Sometimes there may even be developmental deformities in fruits and vegetables if pollination is not done properly.

There are some questions that still intrigue biologists about pollination, she added: the time an insect must spend on each flower; their physical behavior best suited to the flower; the optimal number of pollen grains that they must transport; the best time of the day for pollination; the ideal temperature and humidity for pollination, and so on.

Some online media have once again excited robo bees. But this cool technology is not the solution to pollinator problems and will not stop the decline of bees …

– Dr. Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders) October 10, 2018

In addition, each plant species has unique types of flowers, and each of them is set for successful pollination with different species of insects. In many cases, the flowers and their pollinators went through millions of years of coordinated evolution and thus became mutually optimal for pollination. Drones may not only be able to break into this well-choreographed co-evolution dance.

Saunders concluded that drone projects aimed at mimicking bees might be fun, but not practical solutions to large-scale pollination.

These pollen drones will be fun toys and could also be useful educational tools. They could even be destined for a life on Mars. But do not panic, they would not last long in most farms in the world.

It should also be noted that neither the research paper published on the drone project, nor the official website of the project nor the press release from the University of Delft The technology mentions the potential use of drones as pollinators.

Another problem: With such missteps, farmers and policy makers could stop worrying about harming bees with insecticides. This could result in further decrease in the bee population. So, when it comes to finding solutions to pollination, keeping bees is our best choice.

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