Could tiny robots be the answer to the decline in honeybees?

One-third of the world\'s food supply is directly or indirectly linked to honeybee pollination, making the collapse of the honeybee population a realistic concern. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Will robots replace bees?

Rachel Nania | November 15, 2014 6:58 pm

WASHINGTON — The dramatic decline of the world’s honeybee population is no longer a concern limited to scientists and agricultural experts.

The issue that threatens one-third of our global food supply, also known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has the attention of the president.

In June, the White House issued a presidential memorandum creating a Pollinator Health Task Force, bringing together various government agencies charged with finding ways to ensure the sustainability of food production and the health of the environment.

But Harvard University might be one step — or flight — ahead of the government. Food attorney Mary Beth Albright tells WTOP that researchers at the Ivy League school are developing robotic bees, called RoboBees.

Researchers are building the robots to mimic the movements and behaviors of a bee colony; they envision the RoboBees one day pollinating a field of crops. But the buzz doesn’t stop with pollen: With cameras inside the tiny robots, RoboBees could play a role in military surveillance and hazardous-environment exploration.

“The fact that you can take something that is this small and put a really sophisticated flight mechanism inside, and make it so light that it can also carry a pollination load or maybe even a video camera inside of it, is really astonishing,” says Albright, who wrote about the RoboBees on National Geographic’s The Plate.

“There are a lot of interesting uses for these — like in search-and-rescue operations, you can release a swarm of them.”

Albright says you shouldn’t expect to see RoboBees flying around your garden any time soon. The robots took their first test flight last year, but are still connected to a thin cable for power and are lacking their “bee brains.”

“This is at least 10 to 20 years away,” she says.

However, Albright stresses that RoboBees are not the answer to CCD; they are merely a “stop-gap.” In addition to building the RoboBees, Harvard University, along with other institutions and organizations, is making it a priority to find out what’s at the root of the decline in honeybees.

“These guys can’t make honey, so if you love the honey, save the bees,” Albright says.

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