Tag Archives: pollinators

From large to small, every urban garden is important for pollinators

Size isn’t everything when it comes to gardens. According to a new study, the size of a garden doesn’t correlate with how much nectar its pollinators produce, which means that even small gardens can provide pollinators like bees with a large supply of food.

Image credit: The researchers.

We tend to think of urban areas as problems for conservation, but what if they could also be a part of the solution?

Urban areas can play an important role in the conservation of pollinators, which are currently under threat, especially by pesticides but also by other threats. Urban areas currently cover 2% to 3% of the world’s land and can support substantial pollinator diversity, according to a new study. Among them, small, private gardens can play an important role for pollinators thanks to their flowering plants.

Gardening for the future

Private gardens vary in size, shape, soil type, topography, and amount of sunlight. People also manage their gardens in widely different ways. As a result, the abundance and composition of flowering plants (which is crucial for bees) vary dramatically among gardens; one garden with many flowers may be a delicious buffer for bees, while freshly mown lawns offer next to nothing.

In a new study, researchers from Bristol University carried out the first investigation of how the nectar supply of private gardens changes in space and time. They found that because small gardens can be so important, actions by independent gardeners can lead to a stable and diverse provision of food for pollinators, supporting bees in key areas.

“We knew that gardens were important habitats for UK pollinators, providing 85% of nectar sugar in urban landscapes and a great diversity of flowering plants. However, we didn’t know how nectar production varied between individual gardens or through the months of the year,” PhD student Nick Tew, lead author, said in a statement. 

Gardens and pollinators

Image credits: Kieran Murphy.

Tew and his team surveyed residential gardens in Bristol, choosing six regions of the city for garden surveys. They visited 59 gardens once per calendar month between March and October – covering most of the UK pollinator flight season. They recorded floral abundance in each garden and measured when pollinators can find more nectar.

The researchers found that individual gardens vary significantly in the quantity of nectar they supply, registering a higher nectar production in more affluent neighborhoods but not in large gardens. The supply of nectar reached its peak in July when more plants are in flower, but temporal patterns varied among each garden depending on what flowers they had. 

Gardens with a larger flowering plant richness had a more stable nectar production, the study showed. In other words, individual decisions on how people manage gardens (and how many pollinator-friendly plants are included) can make a big difference for pollinators. The highest-nectar garden produced over 700 times more sugar than the lowest-nectar garden during the survey period. 

“This means that everyone has the potential to help pollinators in a meaningful way, even with a small garden and there is a lot of room for improvement, with some gardens providing hundreds of times less food than others, depending on what people choose to plant, weed, prune or mow,” Nick Tew, lead author, said in a statement. 

In their study, the researchers also included a set of recommendations for all gardeners out there. They suggested using nectar-rich shrubs with complementary flowering periods and flowers with an open shape for late summer and autumn, as most nectar is only accessible to long-tongued pollinators later in the year. 

For a list of some of the flowers that are good for bees, check out this research by the University of Sussex.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology

Solar parks could act as life rafts for bumblebees and other pollinators

Bees around the world are struggling under habitat loss; solar parks could provide a safe haven, according to new research.

Image credits Josef Pichler.

Researchers at Lancaster University have used computer modeling to investigate how different management scenarios of solar parks could help provide a home for ground-nesting bumblebees. The results are quite encouraging, the team explains, showcasing that solar parks can help maintain significant populations of bumblebees both inside their bounds and in their surroundings.

Although the research focused on bumblebees, the authors are confident that the findings translate over to other pollinators as well.

Solar neighborhoods

“Renewable energy development is projected to grow and solar is predicted to lead the way. Solar parks have a high land take per unit of energy produced and this will lead to significant land use change in the future,” says Hollie Blaydes, PhD student and Associate Lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre, lead author of the paper, in an email for ZME Science.

“Understanding of the environmental impacts of this land use change is only just emerging, but there is scope to incorporate environmental benefits into the energy transition. One potential benefit is the creation of pollinator habitat within solar parks.”

For the study, the team used computer models that simulated bumblebee foraging behavior across the UK’s solar parks. From there, they examined how different management strategies (each offering varying degrees of resources for the insects) would influence their numbers and activity. They then used statistical analyses to investigate differences in bumblebee density and nest density across the different solar parks in the model.

Managing solar parks as meadows, they explain, would make the most resources available to bumblebees, and could support populations four times as large as solar parks as solar parks with only grassland and no flowers. The changes required to transition solar parks from grass to meadows are quite simple and could provide significant benefits for pollinators across the country — in addition to generating clean energy.

Larger, more elongated, and more resource-rich solar parks (i.e. with more flowers) could help increase bumblebee density up to 1 km outside of their bounds, the team found. This means that well-managed solar parks could act as hotspots, delivering pollinator services to crops in nearby agricultural lands.

“Pollinator habitat has already been established within some solar parks, but there is little evidence of how effective this is and how pollinators respond,” Blaydes added for ZME Science. “This knowledge gap inspired us to perform this research and by doing so we have provided some of the first evidence to suggest that creating suitable habitat on solar parks could be an effective way to support bumblebee populations.”

Solar parks in the UK are often located within areas where intensive agriculture is practiced. This makes them ideally suited as bumblebee refuges, the team explains. Further increasing their potential in this regard is that the total land area used as solar parks in the UK is increasing steadily as more and more of the country’s energy demands are covered by solar panels.

The UK currently has around 14,000 hectares, which is projected to increase to 90,300 hectares as part of the UK’s plan to meet net zero-emission targets. All that space can be put to good use in the service of pollinators.

However, the path forward is not really clear-cut. Solar park management is often outsourced on contracts that typically last around two years at a time. This can make it hard to plan management strategies for the long term, as each new company will need to adapt to and maintain the habits they inherit.

“The creation of floral-rich habitat on solar parks is likely to benefit a wide range of pollinators. In this study, we focused only on ground-nesting bumblebees given they are a key pollinator of agricultural crops in the UK. Other pollinator groups rely on similar resources to ground-nesting bumblebees, but differences in flight ranges and foraging patterns means that a slightly different modelling approach would be needed to test solar park management and design options for these groups,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science.

Besides offering huge economic benefits for farmers and society as a whole by harboring bumblebees which would handle the pollination of crops. Pollinators the world over are struggling, and spaces such as solar parks could provide veritable lifeboats for these species, who are under pressure from habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution, and dwindling food supplies.

“Solar parks could act as safe havens for bumblebees and other pollinators if managed appropriately. Our study found that solar parks providing the most foraging and nesting resources were most effective at boosting bumblebee numbers both inside the solar park and in the surroundings,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science. “This suggests that resource-rich solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to help address drivers of bumblebee decline and that there could be implications for pollination to crops and wild plants in the surrounding land.”

Hollie Blaydes will present the work at Ecology Across Borders’ Annual Meeting, 2021. This study is unpublished and is currently under review. Original story here.

Temperature extremes on both ends impair bees’ flight, raising new concerns about climate change

Rising mean temperatures could help bees in colder areas fly better. Overall, however, climate change is going to impair the insects’ ability to fly, mainly through the increase in freak and extreme weather events that it promotes.

Image via Pixabay.

In order to do their job (pollination), bees need to be able to fly. And we definitely need pollinators to do their job. But, according to researchers from Imperial College London, rising temperatures all over the world are likely to impair bees’ flight performance. While colonies in areas closer to the poles (which are naturally colder) might actually see an improvement in their flight performance, as their ranges shift closer to the bees’ ideal temperatures, the increase in extreme weather brought about by higher temperatures means that, overall, bees worldwide will have a harder time flying around.

According to the findings, bee flight performance peaks at around 25-27°C but declines rapidly in both lower and hotter temperatures.

Too hot for comfort

“Climate change is often thought of as being negative for bumblebee species, but depending on where in the world they are, our work suggests it is possible bumblebees will see benefits to aspects of an important behavior,” explains first author Daniel Kenna from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial. “However, more extreme weather events, such as cold snaps and the unprecedented heatwaves experienced in recent years, could consistently push temperatures beyond the comfortable flight range for certain species of bumblebees”.

“These risks are particularly pertinent for ‘fixed colony’ pollinators like bumblebees, which cannot shift their position within a season if conditions become unfavorable, and potentially provide a further explanation as to why losses have been observed at species’ southern range limits.”

Air temperature has a direct effect on the body temperature of flying insects, including bees, the team explains — and body temperature has an impact on their ability to fly. Temperatures that are too low impair muscle activity, making them function too slowly to support flight. In too warm temperatures, the insects overheat.

In order to measure the impact of air temperature on bees’ ability to fly, the team temporarily attached bumblebees to ‘flight mills’ — devices in which they fly in circles like a carousel while their speed and flown distance were recorded. Bumblebees of several body sizes were tested at temperatures from 12-30°C, and the results were used to construct a thermal performance curve (TPC). This TPC predicts that while bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this distance would fall to under 1kmThis TPC predicts that whilst bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this average flight distance could be reduced to under 1km when temperatures rise to 35°C. At 10°C, this distance could drop to as little as a few hundred meters.

Observationally, the team found that temperatures of 15°C and below would frequently limit their flights to under 100m. Larger bees were the only ones that managed to fly in these conditions, too, which suggests that smaller individuals might be more affected by cold days but stand to benefit more from warmer conditions.

At temperatures of 15°C and below, the team observed that bees were demotivated to fly and frequently would not fly past 100m. Moreover, it was only the larger bees that successfully flew at these low temperatures, suggesting smaller individuals dislike cold days but may benefit more from climate warming.

Lead researcher Dr. Richard Gill, from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park) at Imperial, said:

“While we still need to understand how these findings translate to factors like foraging return to colonies and pollination provision, as well as applicability to other bumblebee species, the results can help us understand how smaller versus larger flying insects will respond to future climate change,” says co-author Dr. Richard Gill, also from Imperial.

“It’s not just pollination: how different flying insects respond to warming temperatures could also affect the spread of insect-borne diseases and agricultural pest outbreaks that threaten food systems. Applying our experimental setup and findings to other species can help us to understand future insect trends important for managing service delivery or pest control methods.”

For now, the team’s focus was on how climate change impacts flying efficiency exclusively, but they plan to expand their work to include its effects on other stressors such as pesticide exposure. Furthermore, they’re also looking to examine how climate change stands to impact pollination efficiency across different landscapes.

The paper “Thermal flight performance reveals impact of warming on bumblebee foraging potential” has been published in the journal Functional Ecology.

Pesticides, parasites, hunger — bees worldwide are dying faster than we thought, other pollinators might be too

Bees are falling like flies, new research reports, and it seems to be due to our use of pesticide cocktails.

Image via Pixabay.

We as a species are virtually completely dependent on bees and other pollinator insects, without whom we wouldn’t be able to put food on the table. A new meta-analysis that reviewed dozens of studies published over the last 20 years reports that the use of pesticide cocktails in agriculture greatly increases mortality among bees, more so than the substances taken individually. This is further exacerbated by the combined effects of agrochemicals, parasites, and malnutrition on bee behaviors and health.

The team concludes that current risk assessments significantly underestimate how much pressure bees and other pollinators are subjected to. The steep drop in pollinator numbers we’ve seen in crop and wild areas is a testament to these pressures, with potentially dire consequences for ecosystems around the world and our food security.

Bees in a pinch

“A failure to address this and to continue to expose bees to multiple anthropogenic stressors within agriculture will result in the continued decline in bees and their pollination services, to the detriment of human and ecosystem health,” the study concluded.

Pollinators, bees included, are the unsung backbone of our agriculture, but also of wild plant life. Given that insect populations are in decline all over the world, this naturally raises concerns for the health of pollinators going forward — and whether they can continue performing their ecological role or not. Roughly 75% of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption, including cocoa, coffee, almonds, and cherries, rely on pollinators.

Such concerns were the starting point for the current study. The authors explain that while bees seem to be able to resist the different stressors plaguing them today taken individually, they’re chafing under their weight taken together. The combined pressure from agrochemicals, parasites, and malnutrition is taking a toll on the species, greatly increasing the likelihood of death for individual bees and hives as a whole.

Intensive agriculture relies on the use of compounds such as fungicides or pesticides to protect crops and ensure large yields. “Interactions between multiple agrochemicals significantly increase bee mortality,” said co-author Harry Siviter, of the University of Texas at Austin. Furthermore, industrial-scale use of managed honey bees (in order to produce honey) increases the species’ exposure to parasites and diseases, which places even more strain on them.

The continued shrinking of areas with wild plants and wildflowers translates to less diverse pollen and nectar sources for bees, and arguably lower overall amounts of food they can access.

Although previous research has looked at these factors independently — including the effect different agrochemicals have on bees — the meta-study is the first one to look at their effect in aggregate. According to the team, the results strongly suggest “that the regulatory process in its current form does not protect bees from the unwanted consequences of complex agrochemical exposure”. Although the current analysis focused on honey bees, as most literature on the subject focuses on them, more research is needed on other pollinators, the team explains, as they might react differently to the stressors we’ve seen here.

Back in 2019, researchers were drawing attention to the fact that almost half of the world’s insect species were in decline, and a third of them were at real risk of going extinct by the end of the century. Leading causes for this decline are pesticide use and habitat destruction. Against that background, the warnings of this meta-study are all the more biting.

The paper “A cocktail of pesticides, parasites and hunger leaves bees down and out” has been published in the journal Nature.

Hoverfly.

Britain is going through a “widespread loss” of pollinating insects, study reports

Great Britain is in great trouble, new research reports — it’s running out of pollinators.

Hoverfly.

Image via Pixabay.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology measured the presence of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species across the UK from 1980 up to 2013. According to a new study, one-third of the investigated species saw a decline in the number of areas in which they were found over this time frame, while one-tenth saw an increase. The remainder of species either had stable population trends or only saw inconclusive changes.

Bee gone

“We used cutting-edge statistical methods to analyse a vast number of species observations, revealing widespread differences in distribution change across pollinating insects,” says Dr. Gary Powney of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who led the research. “There is no one single cause for these differences, but habitat loss is a likely key driver of the declines.

The study analyzed over 700,000 records, most collected by members of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and the UK Hoverfly Recording Scheme, who looked at more than 19,000 1km by 1km squares across Great Britain. The team writes that it’s possibly the first study of its kind — a large-scale, long-term, species-specific estimates of distribution change for pollinating insects in Britain.

One positive finding of the study was that key bee species — those responsible for pollinating flowering crops — have actually seen an uptick in numbers. They say this could be an effect of the large increases of mass-flowering crops grown during the study period and government-subsidized schemes that encourage farmers to plant more of the wildflowers the bees feed on.

But now, the bad news: the study also found that, on average, the geographic range of bee and hoverfly species has declined by a quarter — this, they write, is equivalent to a net loss of 11 species in every one-square-kilometer area. This included non-crop pollinator species.

Losses were more notable in northern Britain — likely as a result of climate change. Species that prefer cooler temperatures likely reduced their geographical spread in response to rising mean temperatures, the team writes.

“While the increase in key crop pollinators is good news, they are still a relatively small group of species [among all pollinators],” says Powney. “Therefore, with species having declined overall, it would be risky to rely on this group to support the long-term food security for our country. If anything happens to them in the future there will be fewer other species to ‘step up’ and fulfil the essential role of crop pollination.”

Non-crop pollinators are just as vital to us and the environment at large as crop-pollinator species. They help preserve biodiversity levels in the wild by pollinating wildflowers and acting as a key food resource for other wildlife. “Wildflowers and pollinators rely on each other for survival,” Powney adds, explaining that “loses in either are a major cause for concern when we consider the health and beauty of our natural environment.”

Dr. Claire Carvell of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a co-author of the study, says the results point to multiple pressures affecting species of bees and hoverflies across the country. She says we need more and more reliable data on the pattern of pollinator decline, as well as its causes.

“While this analysis sends us a warning, the findings support previous studies suggesting that conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming and gardening, can have a lasting, positive impact on wild pollinators in rural and urban landscapes. However, these need further refining to benefit a wider range of species.”

“In addition to recording species sightings, more standardised monitoring of pollinator numbers is required at a national level and a new UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme has been set up to do just this.”

The team says that this study relied entirely on wildlife recorders who go out and take the pulse of different species in their areas. As such, they want to encourage more people to take part in wildlife recording to help us better understand how wildlife is reacting to environmental changes.

The paper “Widespread losses of pollinating insects in Britain” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Bee Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Utah houses one quarter of the country’s bee species

It’s like the Federal Bee Reserve!

Bee Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A bee seeks pollen from a wildflower in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Image credits Joseph S. Wilson / USU.

Utah really deserves its nickname of the Beehive state, scientists from the Utah State University (USU) report. According to a new paper they published, the state is home to one-quarter of all bee species in the nation. Roughly half of these species live and buzz in the original boundaries of the (now reduced) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Beeutahful

“The monument is a hotspot of bee diversity,” says USU-Tooele entomologist Joseph Wilson, associate professor in USU’s Department of Biology, paper co-author.

Using opportunistic collecting and a series of standardized plots, the team collected bees throughout the six-month flowering season (for four consecutive years). Led by USU alum and researcher Olivia Messinger Carril, they identified a stunning 660 different bee species in the area. That’s “almost as many species as are known in the entire eastern United States,” she explains.

Out of the lot, 49 species were previously unknown. The team also found 150 morphospecies — species which, although greatly similar to other existent species, are so different in form and structure that they’re treated as a distinct twig on the tree of life.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is nestled in the plateaus of south-central Utah, 250 miles south of Salt Lake City and 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Despite being quite arid — if you’ve never visited, the site is a sprawling network of arid ridges, plateaus, and canyons — the site houses over 87% of the state’s flowering plant species.

Given its buffet-like offering of pollen, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument plays host to a huge diversity of bees and other pollinators. Wilson explains that the researchers found all walks of bees during their study — from generalists to narrow specialists, including ground-nesters, cavity and twig-nesters, cleptoparasites, solitary and social species.

Bee diversity at the site seems to peak each spring (which is pretty usual bee-havior), but also during late summer, following monsoonal rains. All in all, “it’s an amazing natural laboratory of pollinators, of which we don’t know a lot,” Wilson says.

Still, the current administration doesn’t seem to agree. On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered that the monument’s area be reduced to 1,003,863 acres (4,062 sq km), a 47% decrease. Various groups have attacked the decision in court.

“The large reduction of this protected areas could have implications for future biodiversity,” Wilson says.

On a personal note, I think that finding such a rich — and from all indications, relatively stable — pollinator population is a very encouraging sign. Between habitat destruction and pesticide use, we’re putting a lot of pressure on such species. Should they crumble under the strain, our food production would plummet. If push comes to shove (let’s hope it doesn’t), such sites may give us the opportunity to ‘graft’ pollinators back to areas that lost them.

All we have to do is not mess with it in the meantime — let’s hope we can manage that.

The paper “Wild bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: richness, abundance, and spatio-temporal beta-diversity” has been published in the journal PeerJ.

Bee.

Walmart silently filed a patent for robotic bees meant to pollinate crops

Walmart is making moves on the bee’s share of agriculture — the company recently filed a patent for autonomous, robotic bees.

Bee.

“I can’t beelieve you’re after my job too!”
Image credits USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Flickr.

Anxious about the food supply? Don’t blame you. Pollinators at large, and bees in particular, are struggling to adapt to the Anthropocene world — and they’re dropping dead in huge numbers while at it. But fret not, for retail giant Walmart is determined to soothe your fears; mainly by replacing them with an equally disturbing, Black Mirror-esque premise.

In a move first reported on by CB Insights, Walmart has filed a patent for autonomous bees. Technically called ‘pollination drones’, these robots are meant to do just that: pollinate crops in lieu of real bees. They would carry pollen from one plant to another, relying on cameras and other sensors to identify crops and their flowers.

The patent appears alongside five other patents for farming drones, including one that would keep an eye out for pests and another tasked with monitoring crop health. It’s not yet clear what Walmart plans to do with these patents; Business Insider tried to contact Walmart, but so far they didn’t respond to their request for comment.

I think it’s safe to assume that the company wants to get into agriculture, to gain more control over its food supply chain. It’s a likely avenue of interest for Walmart, as it has been focusing on improving its grocery delivery business recently. Earlier this week, they’ve announced plans to expand it to over 800 new stores, which would give them a huge reach — some 40% of all households in the US.

Walmart, however, is not the only one tinkering with mechano-bees. Research into this area has gained traction in recent years, mostly spurred on by the decline of honeybees. These insects, which currently pollinate roughly one-third of the food we eat, are dying in huge numbers at an unprecedented rate — largely because of a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. The death rate declined in 2017 compared to previous years, but between habitat destruction and climate change, the outlook is still very, very bleak.

Artificial pollination

Back in 2013, researchers at the Harvard University unveiled the first RoboBees. At the time, they needed to be tethered to a power source even when flying or hovering; since then, the bees have gained energy independence, the ability to stick to surfaces, even dive in and out of water and swim. While they can’t yet be remotely controlled, the researchers hope these bots could help cushion the blow, should the bees become unable to carry our agricultural needs (which they’ve been doing for free).

The robotic bees described in Walmart’s patent, however, would have this capability, along with the ability to automatically detect pollen. That already puts them at a considerable advantage from Harvard’s bees, as it would theoretically allow them to work in farms, rather than just in the lab.

Is this a good thing? Don’t get me wrong, I like eating; anything that keeps that up is a win in my book. But I can’t shake the feeling that we should have never gotten to the point where we can say that our actions are realistically threatening pollinators. By extension, that we are threatening our own metaphorical bread. And veggies. Fruits too.

From a technological standpoint, I’m a huge fan of both Harvard’s and Walmart’s bees. I’d probably pollinate some crops myself if that would mean I’d get to tinker with them and see how they work.

From a ‘superior intelligent being’ point of view… I can’t help but be disappointed that we’ve gotten here. And a bit melancholy that my kids and their kids, in turn, might not see a live bee. Just a beebot. And no matter how technologically dazzling that robot will be, its wings will buzz with the sound of our shortcomings.

Can drones replace bumblebees and stave off a food crisis?

To combat an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, people have been trying to find pollinating replacement techniques for humans. Some solutions include manually pollinating flowers with a brush or using spray machines. None has proven effective until now but a solution proposed by a team from Japan looks mighty promising. They propose retrofitting tiny drones to turn them into pollinating robot insects.

90% of flowering plants and one-third of food crops depend on pollinators for reproduction

Bee colonies all over the world are threatened by a disease that might wipe them out. If bees go, the world’s food supply will seriously become jeopardized. One out of every three mouthfuls of food in the American diet is, in some way, a product of honeybee pollination—from fruit to nuts to coffee beans. In 2015 alone, 42 percent of bee colonies collapsed in the United States at the hand of a plight that’s due to a combination of factors like pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat, and pathogens carried by mites. And things aren’t getting better. Just last month, scientists proposed listing the rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered, the first wild bee in the United States to be classed as such.

Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, was tasked with making an electrically conductive gel ten yeas ago. One clearly failed batch was as sticky as hair wax. He didn’t throw it away, though. Left away to gather dust for years, Miyako was surprised to see that his sticky gel still looked like new despite the container was open. Although this gel was useless for electrical engineering, Miyako recognized that its properties could be valuable elsewhere, as a medium for collecting pollen.

The Japanese researchers glued horsehairs on a typical $100-drone bought from Amazon. Credit: National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, in Tsukuba.

The Japanese researchers glued horsehairs on a typical $100-drone bought from Amazon. Credit: National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, in Tsukuba.

When Miyako sprinkled ants with his ionic gel, these were far more likely to gather pollen than ants who didn’t come in contact with the sticky substance.  Next, he and colleagues strapped horsehairs gelled with the sticky substance on a $100-drone. The setup was meant to mimic a bee’s fuzzy body.

The researchers proved that the remote-controlled drones could pollinate Japanese lilies, as scanning electron microscope images clearly showed pollen grains attached to the drone’s surface. Drones whose horsehairs were coated with the gel gathered 10 times more pollen than hairs free of the gel, as reported in the journal Chem.

This is a very basic demonstration. Although you can automate the drones’ pollination using GPS and artificial intelligence, it’s unlikely we’ll see millions of such flying machines going from flower to flower any time soon. It would simply be impossible to replace bees. According to Joe Traynor, a “bee broker” in California, the almond industry in the state depends on 1.8 million hives and 35 billion bees to pollinate 900,000 acres of almond trees. Rather, Miyako says drone-assisted pollination could be used in those areas where bees are lacking and plant fertilization needs a nudge. “In combination is the best way,” he told the LA Times.

Biologist David Goulson from the University of Sussex in the UK wrote on his blog that research ought to be more concerned with saving the bees than ‘planning for their demise’.

“I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots?”

I would expect that cost to be incalculable. Clearly, we need to do more for bees but the fact that Colony Collapse Disorder isn’t yet fully understood doesn’t make our job any easier.