Can Science Replace the Bee?
By: Donna Gates, Maryland Master Gardener
Some plants, like Conifers and many deciduous trees, are pollinated by wind. Members of the grass family, including rice, corn, wheat, oats and barley, also rely on wind to carry pollen from one plant to another. Other plants require the assistance of animals, such as birds, bats, butterflies, beetles, wasps, flies and bees.
By far, bees (native or honey bee) do the majority of moving pollen from one flower to another. Bees are hairy little critters and pollen is attracted by electrostatic forces to the bee’s body. Bees are after pollen (high in protein) and nectar as food sources, but by going from one flower to another pollen is inadvertently transferred from flower to flower.
This relationship between insect and plant has been perfected over billions of years. Although most people are familiar with the honeybee, many forget about the hundreds of native bees that not only pollinate food plants, but also the native plants that other wildlife species depend on.
But bees and other pollinators are in trouble worldwide because of habitat loss, parasites, pesticide use, diseases and climate change. In some parts of China, pesticide use has reduced the bee population to the point that fruit trees are not being pollinated. Rural farmers find it cheaper to pollinate manually than hire beekeepers to bring in their hives.
The flowers of pear and apple trees are pollinated by people scrambling up the trees and using a stick, to which chicken feathers have been tied on one end, as a means of transferring pollen from one blossom to another. They find this labor intensive effort worth doing for such an important cash crop.
In the face of possible extinction, science is working to replace bees in another way. Researchers at Harvard University are exploring the possibility of using insect-sized drones for artificial pollination. Their “RoboBee” has a wingspan of 1.2 inches and artificial muscles capable of beating them at 120 times per second.
A Japanese researcher has equipped his drone with an ionic gel/horsehair combination to pick up and transfer pollen. The creation of a swarm of drone bees capable of autonomous flight and able to pollinate a field of sunflowers boggles the mind, but is possible. Walmart has joined the band wagon and received a patent on a drone pollinator.
On another note, a team of students at Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, have devised a method of making honey, sans the honey bee.
“BeeFree” honey uses engineered bacteria that produces enzymes in a nectar-like solution, mimicking a bee’s honey stomach.
What would it take to replace a bee colony if one needed to? An active colony contains 10,000 or more bees, one third of which are the foragers that collect pollen and nectar.
About two million hives are trucked into the almond growing areas of California alone each year. So, if one robot bee costs $10, the price of replacing the real thing may be prohibitive. Additionally, mining the lithium for their tiny batteries carries an environmental price, not to mention the disposal problem of broken robots. Other issues concern the lack of biodiversity that would result if only crops were pollinated and not the plants in forests and fields where wildlife species make their home.
I, for one, plan on supporting the native bees in my garden by providing a variety of plants that will provide blooms throughout the growing season, using pesticides only when absolutely necessary and providing bare patches of ground as nesting habitat.