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Biology, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Are robotic pollinators the future?

The plight of bees is relatively well known today. Pesticides, decreasing diversity, competition from non-native species, and a tiny little parasite have all contributed to the decline of bees. While the loss of bees on its own is distinctly negative, as with many things many humans care more when there is an impact on us. And the loss of bees will impact us.

A huge number of the plants we eat rely on pollinators like bees to reproduce. Kiwi fruit is just one example that needs pollinators. But what does that actually mean? This is one of the challenges that I’ve seen. Not everyone understands what the consequences are. We can’t replace the bees with seeds because the seeds aren’t produced unless there is pollination. And often, it is actually the seeds, or at least the outer covering for the seed that we actually eat, as is the case with kiwi fruit. So without pollinators, or without enough pollinators, we cannot produce enough food for the planet’s ever growing population.

Robotic pollinators are already in the works. For example, Williams et al. (2020) discuss a robotic pollination system for kiwi fruit that produces fruit that are comparable to current commercial varieties, but they cannot achieve amounts that are comparable to current yields from natural pollinators.

There are lots of barriers to this technology though. Do we need specific robots for every plant in need of a pollinator? What technology can power the robots and be light enough to still fly? How do they navigate or even function in adverse weather? But sometimes the real question in sustainability isn’t a scientific question. Science while fundamental, isn’t equipped to deal with questions like those raised by Nimo (2022). If we have the ability to make robot pollinators do we still have the motivation to stop the loss and recover natural pollinators?

With the way honey bee colonies are driven around entire countries like the US, rented, if you will, at just the right time for each species of plant, haven’t we already commercialized this natural process enough? Robotic pollinators could let us increase the use of pesticides. We wouldn’t need to care about collateral damage because robot bees are here to save the day. Where is the motivation to improve agricultural practices and increase biodiversity and even rewilding of landscapes if we can just buy some robots to meet our human food needs. Sure there might be other consequences, but isn’t that what our suite of chemicals like fertilizer is for?

Nimo argues that robotic pollinators run the risk of turning yet another process into a capitalist venture. Is the technology of a robotic pollinator amazing? Without question. Will we need technology to mitigate the damage we have already done? Again, no question. But when we turn exclusively to technology in our current economic system we are potentially making our lack of sustainability an economic benefit and that is a societal issue not a scientific one.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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