Beekeepers are having a tough time keeping their hives alive. So far, they have been succeeding – there are more colonies of honey bees in the world now than there were 20 years ago. (Contrary to hype, honey bees are not becoming extinct.) However – and this is big – beekeepers have been losing more colonies than usual because of mysterious ailments. To cope with losses, beekeepers raise more queens than usual, make more increases each year than usual – and spend more money than usual. This is expensive, very expensive. In places like Ontario and parts of the American mid-west, over half of all kept colonies died during the winter of 2013-2014. This means those unfortunate beekeepers had to shell out a lot of cash to raise replacements so they could stay in business. This has also forced beekeepers to charge more to the groves and orchards that rent honey bees for pollination.
Growers are getting nervous – with the high cost of rental bees and all the hype about honey bee extinction, growers have begun to look at other ways to pollinate crops. Enter Robo-bees.
Harvard University researchers are coming to the rescue. Harvard’s Robobees website says that autonomously pollinating a field of crops using a fleet of tiny robotic bees is 20 years away. I think the scientists are being modest. In the U.S. Navy photo above, you can see the big clunky insect robot developed in 2006; below, you can watch a video of the newest device. The contrast is amazing. With the ever-accelerating pace of electronic technology, I think the engineers will be able to work the bugs out of their creation much sooner – and in turn, work the real bugs right out of the pollination business. (The pace will also be hastened by the military application of using spy-bugs. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory just signed a $38 million deal with a company called BAE which will lead development of spying dragonflies.)
So what’s next? Beekeepers as mechanics and computer technicians? Robo-bees that both pollinate and carry nectar? Mechanical bees that are drones? Mechanical bees with a honey tummy as big as a bus? I can see the future… Robots harvesting and extracting the honey produced by robo-bees that pollinate robo-trees and gather nectar from… dandelions. Let’s face it, there will always be dandelions.