Addressing the Pollinator Shortage

By Iva Fedorka

The decline in bee and other natural pollinator populations has been well documented. Causes include climate and habitat change, pesticide and herbicide use, and many other factors that place global food production in jeopardy and make feeding the planet more challenging. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, roughly 80 percent of flowering plants must be pollinated to propagate.

It’s now common for commercial beekeepers to rent colonies to farmers to support crop expansion or compensate for fewer wild pollinators. The USDA reports that the total value of these pollination services in 2022 was $441 million, an amount that has increased as much as 42 percent since 2017. Many scientists, academic institutions, and government agencies have been gathering data, conducting longitudinal studies, and even developing pollinating robots to mitigate the negative effects of pollinator loss.

However, manufacturing flying robots requires plastics, membranes, wires and foils, resins, carbon fibers, metal for electronics, and chemicals for batteries or solar panels. Damaged or unretrieved devices would create litter and pollution and could leach chemicals, produce microplastics, be consumed by birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and damage the engines of crop dusters.

Where Are the Pollinators?

In addition to bees, nocturnal insects, bats, birds, butterflies, flies, beetles, moths, wasps, ants, and other creatures can be active pollinators. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the relative contribution of non-bee pollinators globally by reviewing 39 studies conducted across five continents. Their survey found that insects other than bees provide 25 to 50 percent of total visits to crop flowers. Although some were less-effective pollinators than others per visit, they visited flowers more often, which made their performance about the same overall.

Non-bees are often active at different times of the day and may operate in larger geographies, function in weather that bees cannot tolerate, and be more efficient at pollen transfer under certain conditions or for greater distances. These non-bee pollinators may also visit different parts within a flower or flowers within a plant, increasing pollination effectiveness.

U.S. Government Efforts

In support of the 2014 presidential memorandum, "Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators," a multi-agency Pollinator Health Task Force was formed. The task force developed a national strategy, issued in May 2015, to promote honeybees and the nearly 4,000 species of native bees and other pollinating invertebrates in decline.

As part of a year-long Pollinator Protection Initiative, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) placed beehives at 11 locations throughout the country. The pilot was successful: increasing public awareness and providing beekeeping lessons while pollinating nearby crops. Responsibility for the individual locations was then transferred to the local GSA organizations, but the knowledge gained is intended to help advance the science underpinning the government’s land management and regulatory decisions.

The U.S. government is committed to increasing and improving pollinator habitats directly through land management and indirectly through interactions between federal and state governments, localities, the private sector, and citizens. These actions range from planting pollinator gardens and improving land management practices at federal facilities to advancing the availability and use of pollinator-friendly seed mixes in land management, restoration, and rehabilitation projects nationwide.

Reasons for Robots

The need to simulate natural pollination occurred in part from the growth of vertical farming, a method that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial lights to grow plants indoors. Although the concept is attractive, many vertical farms can produce only lettuce and herbs, which can be grown hydroponically with relatively little water.

"To expand the profitability of vertical farms by offering a greater variety of crops, pollination is needed."

Nearly a third of the crops we consume must be pollinated to grow, but domesticated honeybees cannot easily navigate in artificial light. Hand pollination is expensive and time intensive, so the use of robotic pollinators is a potential option.

The StickBug

WVU Today reported that researchers at West Virginia University have successfully designed a robot that pollinates. Led by Yu Gu, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the team created StickBug, a six-armed robot. Gu, along with Jason Gross, associate professor and associate chair for research, mechanical, and aerospace engineering, and Nicole Waterland, associate professor of horticulture and director of controlled environments, received $750,000 in USDA funding.

The robot assesses the area and creates a detailed map of the flowers and pollination-dependent plants, Gu said in the article. The multiple arms help to improve efficiency and effectiveness for flowers growing in hard-to-reach places. The robot can use one arm to grab a branch and the other to pollinate. By performing flower inspections, mapping, pollination, development tracking, and other time-consuming tasks, growers are free to focus on planting, irrigation, pest control, and other necessary duties.

StickBug’s effectiveness will be evaluated with blackberry and tomato crops grown in a greenhouse. These plants were chosen because of their popularity, economic value, and production in high tunnels and greenhouses. “Greenhouse tomatoes can be produced for 11 months out of the year, so there’s a continual need for [pollinators],” Waterland said in the article.

Gu hopes that this robotic pollination technology can help more people in the state have their own agricultural ventures. For WVU specifically, the robot pollinator also provides educational opportunities for students. “WVU allows us to do cutting-edge research,” Gu said. “[This project] provides an opportunity for students to do both hands-on and theoretical research in robotics as well.”

Are Robots the Answer?

Alan Dorin, an associate professor in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University in Australia, disagrees with the robotics approach in his article "No, ‘robobees’ are not the answer to pollinator decline." Although the idea of robots has captured media attention, and the notion of insect suffering is not disputed, the concept does not “fly” with many ecologists and biologists.

Available statistics suggest that approximately 16 trillion honeybees were managed worldwide in 2016, a number that was deemed insufficient to meet global agricultural demand. This number does not include the trillions of wild honeybees or the tens of thousands of other species of bees, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and other insect pollinators that would also need to be “replaced.” Furthermore, the world’s small and subsistence farms that comprise 75 percent of growers are unlikely to be able to afford a swarm of robotic bees.

The robots may even displace existing wild and managed pollinators, escalating their decline and increasing our dependence on alternative solutions. Their abilities are unlikely to include wildflower pollination, a waste of resources from a grower’s perspective and too broad of a design consideration.

A Better Solution

Exploring a more ecologically sound approach, while still incorporating technology, may be a better alternative than focusing on replacements.

  • Digital technology can help facilitate pollination of crops and wildflowers
  • Machine learning and computer vision techniques can survey and capture insect activity
  • Beehives connected to the internet could help monitor colony health
  • App-controlled pheromone lures might be used to attract and orchestrate pollinator movement

The pursuit of a natural and conservation-based support, like the GSA and other habitat-preserving programs, may ultimately be a more effective approach to successfully addressing this serious global concern for all pollinators.

Iva Fedorka is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.

Addressing the Pollinator Shortage