By Chantele Karim, Biological Sciences, ’17
“Over the past few years, I have noticed an increase in media attention directed toward bees. Although the presence of issues regarding bees in the United States was rather clear to me, their magnanimity remained largely obscure. Recently, I came across an article in The Economist on the invention of an artificial pollinator. I began to better understand the far-reaching extent of the global pollination crisis caused by suffering bee populations and felt compelled to research the topic further. This article seeks to briefly detail current issues regarding the decline of domestic and wild bees, as well as the approaches being undertaken in response.”
On February 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) as endangered — the primary reasons being habitat loss, disease, climate change, and pesticides associated with farming. The habitat of this now endangered species once ranged across 28 states within the United States, the District of Columbia, and 2 Canadian provinces. Since 2000, however, the bumble bee has been found in only 13 states and 1 Canadian province (1).
The implications of Bombus affinis’s endangered status are widespread, considering the extensive impact of the species across ecosystems. Bumble bees are important pollinators that contribute to the production of many native flowering and seed crops, thereby providing sustenance for many wildlife populations. They also play a significant role in pollinating agricultural crops managed by humans, such as blueberries, apples, strawberries, almonds, and tomatoes. In fact, USFWS estimates that the economic value of pollination services provided by wild bees is approximately $3 billion per year in the United States (1). The newly endangered status of Bombus affinis thus raises a humanitarian concern, in addition to concerns regarding the welfare of plant and animal populations.
The current context of domestic bee populations adds considerable weight to these concerns. In November of 2006, drastic declines in honey bee (Apis) populations were linked by researchers to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, the cause of which is theorized to involve pathogens and viruses, poor nutrition due to loss of habitat, exposure to pesticides, lack of genetic diversity, and bee management practices. Declines in domestic bee populations remain ongoing and pose a contemporary threat to both U.S. and global agricultural and economic sustainability (2,5,7).
In response to this pollination crisis, many researchers, beekeepers, and organizations such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have directed their efforts toward sustaining both domestic and wild bee populations, and preventing their further decline (2,5). A different approach has been undertaken by a team of scientists and engineers led by Dr. Eijiro Miyako of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan. On February 9, 2017, Dr. Miyako published his experimental findings in “Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators”— the main result of his research being the creation of an artificially engineered pollinator in drone form. The pollinator is equipped with synthesized iconic liquid gel-coated horsehair fibers that allow it to successfully absorb and dispense pollen, as shown in Miyako’s experiment with Japanese lilies (Lilium japonicum) (3,4,8).
Despite its success in the laboratory, Dr. Miyako’s human-operated robotic pollinator cannot yet provide a feasible solution to our pollination crisis due to economic and practicality constraints (3,4). However, developments in artificial intelligence and GPS may enable artificial pollinators to become more widely implemented in the near future (4). It is worth noting that in addition to their intended contributions, research such as Dr. Miyako’s and efforts in preventing the decline of bees have also progressively led to our heightened awareness of bees and their remarkably skilled contributions as pollinators.
Click here to learn more about bee pollinator decline and how you can help declining bee populations.
- “Fact Sheet- Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis).” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species. 10 Jan. 2017. Web.
- Hagopian, Joachim. “Death and Extinction of the Bees.” Global Research. 4 Jan. 2017. Web.
- Klein, Alice. “Robotic bee could help pollinate crops as real bees decline.” New Scientist. 9 Feb. 2017. Web.
- “Plans for artificial pollinators are afoot.” The Economist. 9 Feb. 2017. Web.
- “Pollinator Protection: Colony Collapse Disorder.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. 16 Sept. 2016. Web.
- “Save Bees: Pollinator Decline and How to Help.” Save Bees. 15 Jan. 2017. Web.
- Suryanarayanan, Sainath, and Daniel Lee Kleinman. “Introduction.” Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics, and Honeybee Health, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey; London, 2017, pp. 1–14. Web.
- Svetlana A. Chechetka, Yue Yu, Masayoshi Tange, Eijiro Miyako, “Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators,” Chem, vol. 2, no. 2, 9 Feb. 2017, pp. 224-239. Web.
Edited by Rachel Hull & Madison Dougherty