With honey bee populations still in peril from one or several of a litany of hotly debated causes — neonicotinoid insecticides, changing climate, and more — Walmart appears to have joined the race for a technological solution to a potential looming disaster, filing a patent for robotic, drone bees earlier this month.
Technically called pollination drones, Business Insider points out, the tiny bee imposters’ capabilities would theoretically include crop pollination — managed remotely through sensors and cameras allowing precision maneuverability between crops and monitor, as well as to monitor that pollination was both sufficient and successful.
CB Insights, credited with first publicizing the patent filed on March 8, surmised Walmart is seeking further control of its supply chain, as the pollinator drones are among six “patents targeting farm automation. The applications propose using drones to identify pests attacking crops, monitor crop damage, spray pesticides, and pollinate crops.”
It continues, “Drones could spray pesticides across a more targeted set of crops, rather than the blanket approach used today. The patent notes that ‘chemical spraying of crops is expensive and may not be looked upon favorably by some consumers.’”
Walmart’s move might thus be considered proactive and positive — although an albeit eerie dystopian commentary on the state of the planet and its ecosystems, or humankind’s unfortunate myopathy — but criticism questions whether funds might be better spent identifying issues facing honey bees and working to conserve and rejuvenate dwindling populations, rather than essentially planning for the worst.
“On top of more practical arguments, such as costs to smaller farms,” Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, told NPR, “I would not like to live in a world where bees are replaced by plastic machines. Let’s focus on protecting the biodiversity we still have left.”
McFrederick doesn’t deny the efficacy of drone pollinators, particularly in conjunction with the use of artificial intelligence, but sees the effort heaved at solutions for a problem which has yet to fully develop — without a coincident examination of the root problem — as somewhat misguided.
If bees die out, humans would face a drastically-reduced food landscape — according to Big Think, mirroring similar estimates, around a third of the food humans eat relies on honey bee pollination — and honey bees comprise a paltry 2 percent of all bees.
“Bee deaths have been on the rise, with losses outpacing colonies’ ability to regenerate,” NPR reported last year. “Last year, the U.S. lost 44 percent of all honeybee colonies — a species essential to commercial pollination in this country. Other species of bees have neared mass extinction, including the rusty patch [sic] bumble bee and seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees.”
Even with a slightly lessened decline in recent years, that’s an astoundingly high figure next to the generally-expected 17-percent decline in honey bee populations in a ‘typical’ year, Phys.org noted in 2016, adding that myriad environmental and biological factors likely contribute to colony collapse disorder — even though a solid cause has yet to be fully established.
Robotic bees, pollinator drones, would certainly stave off one of the more pernicious problems facing honey bees in recent years: a mite which acts like a vampire in the tiny insects. Phys.org explains,
“Beekeepers’ biggest challenge today is probably Varroa destructor, an aptly named parasitic mite that we call the vampire of the bee world. Varroa feeds on hemolymph (the insect ‘blood’) of adult and developing honey bees. In the process it transmits pathogens and suppresses bees’ immune response. They are fairly large relative to bees: for perspective, imagine a parasite the size of a dinner plate feeding on you. And individual bees often are hosts to multiple mites.”
Whether single issue as-yet undiscovered or a plethora of damaging factors acting insidiously, the decline of pollinators is a silent if impending doom whose fruition may yet be halted — even if by corporations and private entities like Walmart, whose self-interest in self-preservation in the matter is undeniable.
However, that in itself is a timely caveat for the state of food, wildlife, and the natural order — creating a robotic version of an evolutionary masterpiece bespeaks volumes of humans’ sad penchant for examining problems post mortem — rather than applying forethought.
Image: ShutterStock/Josh McCann.