Harvard Develops Robotic Bees, Begs the Question – Why Not Save Real Bees?

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 25, 2013.  Engineers at Harvard University have developed a new technique that may allow for the mass fabrication of robotic insects. The Harvard Microrobotics Lab has been working on the development of the “RoboBees Project” since 2009. Appropriate materials, hardware, control systems, and fabrication techniques did not exist prior to the RoboBees, so each facet was invented, developed and integrated by a diverse team of researchers through this project. Researchers believe the RoboBees project could have a wide range of applications, one being the autonomous pollinating a field of crops.

Previous to this invention engineers had to fold, align, and secure each of the tiny parts and joints manually. This process was incredibly time consuming and error prone. Beyond issues of human error, manual assembly would make the project almost impossible to scale up and would keep creation costs high. To create the machines manually, “You’d take a very fine tungsten wire and dip it in a little bit of superglue, then, with that tiny ball of glue, you’d go in under a microscope like an arthroscopic surgeon and try to stick it in the right place,” according to Pratheev Sreetharan, M.S.

This impressive scientific research, beyond some of its obvious applications, could lead to a better understanding of how bee colonies and bees function. However, this project, which is funded at levels up to $2,000,000 per year for five years, also raises some important questions. The most pressing of these questions being, shouldn’t we be focused on saving the remaining bees and other pollinators that now face staggering levels of environmental stress?

In the new technique, “18 layers of carbon fiber, Kapton (a plastic film), titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets have been laminated together in a complex, laser-cut design. The structure incorporates flexible hinges that allow the three-dimensional product —just 2.4 millimeters tall— to assemble in one movement, like a pop-up book,” as described by Harvard.  This layering process builds on the construction process currently used to make circuit boards. This means that integration of electrical components will be dramatically easier. According to Mr. Streetharan, “Now, I can put chips all over that. I can build in sensors and control actuators.”

“Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) is the name given to the precipitous decline of honey bee populations around the world beginning in 2006. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that, on average, beekeepers are losing over 30% of their honey bee colonies each year, twice what is considered normal. However, winter 2012 may turn out to be the “worst year for bees.” While CCD appears to have multiple interacting causes, including malnutrition, pests, parasites, pathogens, and stress, a range of scientific evidence points to sublethal pesticide exposures as important contributing factors. Neonicotiniods, a class of potent systemic insecticides, are particularly suspect, especially in combination with the dozens of other pesticides bees are exposed to in their hive and when foraging.

Clothianidinthiamethoxamimidicloprid, and new systemic pesticide sulfoxaflor, currently under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review, represent enormous threats to the long-term survival of honey bee colonies both in the U.S. and across the globe. Most recently, the European Commission announced its position against the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, urging member states within the European Union (EU) to impose a two year suspension on their use. However, EU member states remain split on suspending neonicotinoids.

In the U.S., EPA has failed to act. In 2012, beekeepers, Beyond Pesticides, the Center for Food Safety, and Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) filed an emergency legal petition with EPA to suspend the use of clothianidin, urging the agency to adopt safeguards. The petition was rejected. Because of this failure to act, Beyond Pesticides joined beekeepers, environmental and consumer groups in filing a lawsuit in Federal District Court against EPA for its failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides.

Wild pollinator populations have also dramatically declined. Loss of habitat to genetically engineered (GE) cropland, as well as increasingly warm temperatures are responsible for the dramatic decline in Monarch butterfly populations, according to scientists who say populations are the lowest they have seen in two decades. Forestland that is occupied by butterflies, once as high as 50 acres, has dwindled to 2.94 acres. This is problematic as recent studies have shown that wild insects pollinate crops more effectively because increases in their visitation enhanced fruit sets by twice as much as equivalent increase in honey bee visitation. Engineers may also have a harder time designing a replacement for wild pollinators than more predictable domesticated bees.

Bats are also facing dramatic environmental stress. Bats around the U.S. are being decimated by White Nose Syndrome (WNS). The deadly disease was detected recently at Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, according to the National Park Service. Based on laboratory testing, three bats were discovered with WNS, coming from three separate caves in the park. Bats are one of the only nocturnal pollinators and the only nocturnal insect predator in the US, playing a key role both for plants and farmers. Organic farmers, in particular, are reliant on bat pollinators as a pest management tool: one brown bat can kill between 3000 and 7000 insects per night. A study published in 2011 in the journal Science estimated that bats provide $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year worth of pest control services to agricultural operations, and that number does not include pollination services.

For the most recent action being taken to protect honey bees, see the Beyond Pesticides Pollinators and Pesticides page.

Join us April 5-6 for Beyond Pesticides’ 31st National Pesticide Forum, where New Mexico honey bee inspector, president of the New Mexico Beekeepers Association, and a beekeeper for over 30 years, Les Crowder, will discuss organic and natural solutions in beekeeping for problems commonly treated with chemicals, and the role beekeepers play in protecting biodiversity. Organic agriculture, beekeeping, resilient food systems, pesticides and much more will be discussed. Space is limited so register now.

Sources: Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, http://www.beyondpesticides.org

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticide