Sticky pollinating drones could give bees a helping hand

Far from replacing bees, the drones' designers are hopeful that their invention could someday help carry the burden that modern agricultural demand has put on colonies.

Insect-sized drones covered with hair and gel
can successfully pollinate lilies – as you can see in this video.

Svetlana Chechetka and colleagues from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan unveiled their flying helpers in the journal Chem, The tiny four-rotor drones – which cost about $100 each – could one day help shoulder the burden modern agricultural demand puts on bees.

Chechetka and colleagues coated the underside of the little machines with horsehair to emulate the fuzziness of a bee and added a gel just sticky enough to pick up pollen from one flower and drop it off on the next.

(The gel, by the way, was originally developed in 2007 as an electrical conductor but was quickly shelved because it didn’t work. Years later it was rediscovered and happily repurposed as bee glue.)

In the lab, at least, the insect-drone works well, successfully pollinating some Japanese lilies (Lilium japonicum). But not everyone in the field sees relying on artificial plant husbandry as the way forward.

Boris Baer, a bee biologist at the University of Western Australia, views artificial pollination as a short-term solution to a complex, long-term problem. "Of course you can buy a drone for $100, but can you pollinate 60 or 70 million flowers with that?” he asks.

Contrib jess snir.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Jessica Snir is a clinical trial coordinator at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and Cosmos intern.