An update on the RoboBee from the Wyss Institute and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has reignited interest in ‘robot bees’, as well as the discussion of their potential use in the future of agriculture. Could they be a suitable replacement for organic pollinators such as bees and butterflies in the wake of declining honeybee populations the world over?

Last year alone, beekeepers across the US lost 44% of their honey bee colonies, and environmental bodies are keen to highlight the devastation mass bee extinction would cause.

University of Sussex Professor of Biology Dave Goulson, a specialist in bee studies, is a known critic of robotic bees, or at least talk of them becoming a predominant alternative to the current natural pollination cycle. “While I can see the intellectual interest in trying to create robotic bees,” he said in a recent blog post, “I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves.” He argues that instead, we should invest in saving bee populations, rather than finding technological alternatives.

The two robot bee species

Varieties of robot bees have been developed separately by both Japanese researchers as well as the team at Harvard University. The Japanese model is essentially a miniature drone, which uses electrically charged gel to attract pollen from flowers, mimicking the natural process used by pollinating bees.

Models developed by the Harvard robotics team are micro-robots that use artificial muscles to beat synthesised wings 120 times a second, with the team hoping to develop an autonomous swarm for various applications including artificial pollination, environmental monitoring, or even search-and-rescue.

While artificially intelligent robot bee drones are the end-goal, neither model is currently able to operate autonomously, instead being guided remotely. According to a paper published in the journal Chem, the Japanese team was able to pick up 41% of pollen in three landings on an open bamboo lily flower. This demonstrates that progress is being made in the field, but the technology has a long way to go before we can expect to see artificial swarms pollinating fields.

Are cyber-swarms viable?

Biosciences demonstrator at Bournemouth University Elizabeth Franklin highlights the complicated nature of the pollination process, which machines would struggle to replicate fully.

“Pollination is a complex task and should not be underrated,” Franklin says. “It involves finding flowers and deciding if they are suitable and haven’t already been visited. The pollinator then needs to successfully handle the flower, picking pollen up and putting it down in another plant, while co-ordinating with its team and optimising its route between flowers.” While Franklin does acknowledge that machine learning and GPS tracking could be used, the teamwork aspect that bees have developed would be extremely difficult to replicate.

Goulson raises the issue of cost. “There are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer,” he says. “That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. Even if the robots could be built, complete with power pack and control devices, for one penny each – which seems absurdly optimistic – it would cost £32bn to build them.” That 1p figure is currently closer to $100, at least for the Japanese model.

The technology could see a potential application in hostile or even extra-terrestrial environments, with some envisaging robot bee swarms pollinating Martian biospheres, but on Earth at least in the short-term for large-scale pollination, it seems obvious that unless the bee pandemic takes a dramatic turn for the even-worse, rapid investment in robotic alternatives is not the answer.