Technology is no replacement for nature
Robo-bees could give us incredible insight into how real bees navigate, forage, communicate and avoid predators – but they are not a solution to crop pollination
Beautiful ‘bee-friendly’ planting at the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre and winner of the Green Flag for parks Pollinator Award in 2017 for the preservation of bees and other pollinating insects. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
We humans are pretty smart cookies. We can solve pretty much most problems thrown at us by the world around us. We have innovated, invented and engineered solutions to overcome a myriad of challenges. We can produce more food, save more lives, travel more quickly and communicate more rapidly than would have been dreamed possible a couple of decades ago, never mind a century ago. Our ingenuity and adaptability has allowed us to thrive and use almost all of the planet on which we live.
And our planet, and the other creatures we share it with, has provided some of the inspiration for that innovation. Several million years of evolution has resulted in plant defence chemicals which can be used as drugs or to control pests, animals that have conquered the air with amazing feats of flight and inspired our own conquest of the skies, and insects which have created air-conditioned societies in some of earth’s most inhospitable climates. We can learn a lot from looking at how nature has problem-solved over the millennia.
And now as we realise that nature is in decline, that biodiversity is being lost at an ever-increasing rate, forests are disappearing, climates are warming, fresh water is becoming more scarce, the air more polluted, we turn to our technological know-how to save us.
Enter the robo-bees. Tiny little robot bees. Mini-drones that according to US retail giant Walmart (who have recently patented this technology), could provide targeted crop pollination services, presumably in a dystopian future when all the real bees are gone.
As regular readers, most of my friends and all of my students, will know, I am a big fan of bees. Not just honey bees – there are 20,000 species of bees on earth, most of which do not produce honey or live in hives. Bees of various kinds have been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth more than 65 million years ago, and have evolved complex behaviours for detecting and locating not just any old flowers, but the right ones for their needs. They land on those flowers in just the right way so that they can efficiently extract nectar and pollen. Flowers have evolved ways of daubing pollen onto the bee’s body while it is collecting its meal, and use the foraging bee to transfer its reproductive materials, basically enabling plants to engage in sexual intercourse with other individuals of the same species.
Bees have evolved ways to communicate with each other about where the best eats are, they switch their allegiance when new plants come into bloom, and have bodies and behaviours which sync with the plants on which they forage. And because of the diversity of bees, different flowers have evolved different colours, shapes and sizes, and in some cases, different bee species can compensate for each other from year to year and from place to place.
Even if we could emulate the complexity of these interactions with the robo-bee, would making robo-bees be a cost-effective, sustainable, long-term solution? Can we give them the capability to see, locate and respond to the environment with software for vision, navigation and artificial intelligence? Would they be able to adapt to changing conditions?
We know that bees are in decline, and that they are important for pollinating crops and wild plants, and so it clearly makes sense to some to try and pre-empt their disappearance by developing an alternative. But what about putting all that effort, ingenuity and resources into understanding and saving what nature has road-tested for us? I’m not dissing technology here. Robo-bees could give us incredible insight into how real bees navigate, forage over long distances, communicate, compete and avoid predators. But they are not a solution to crop pollination. Why not develop innovative ways to protect bee diversity, reverse drivers of bee decline, prevent bees being poisoned, having nowhere to live and going hungry?
And it’s not just bees. We need to turn our incredible talent for problem-solving to finding a way of ensuring our natural world and all the amazing creatures in it isn’t decimated as we strive for better well-being for our own species. We can learn a lot from nature – let’s work with it rather than trying to replace it.
Jane Stout is professor of Botany at TCD School of Natural Sciences