Artificial pollinators are cool, but not the solution

Agreed, bees and other insect pollinators are under threat globally from multiple human pressures. If pollinators disappear completely from an ecosystem, their loss will affect the structure of those ecosystems and the natural foods and fibres we use from the ecosystem. So, finding solutions to the problem of pollinator decline are imperative.

This is why the robo bees story sounds like such a seductive idea. Imagine creating tiny drones with hairs on them that can be programmed to do a bee’s job? Wow! We are off the hook.

This new paper in the academic journal Chem has received a lot of irresponsible press. The paper presents a study by engineers and chemists at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology that describes a new ‘materially engineered artificial pollinator’. You can read the back-story of the serendipitous discovery after a bottle of engineered liquid was left uncapped in a storage room for a decade etc. etc. here

The liquid is “ionic liquid gels (ILGs), composed of an imidazolium salt and the copolymer of a polymerizable imidazolium salt and an acrylic cross-linker..”. The authors demonstrate the ILGs’ ability for pollen adsorption and transfer, and even test its transfer ability on the bodies of house flies and ants in laboratory conditions (ants are rarely pollinators in natural environments).

The authors then create the artificial pollinator by attaching a patch of ILG-coated animal hairs to the back of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). They test run its pollination capacity with Lilium japonicum flowers. The authors justify using this particular plant species to test the artificial pollinator’s capacity because “it is commercially available in all seasons in Japan. In addition, the relatively longer stamen and pistil of the flower make it easy for a hybrid UAV to hit these parts by using a radiowave controller. Furthermore, this flower is representative of entomophilous plants.”

And the authors openly claim in multiple places in the manuscript that their technology can solve the pollinator crisis:

From the highlights: “This technology can lead to the development of an innovative artificial pollinator against the global pollination crisis.”

From the abstract: “Such materially engineered artificial plant pollinators should lead to the development of high-performance robotics that can help counter the decline in honeybee populations.”

From the discussion: “In particular, it should lead to the development of robotic pollinators and help counter the problems caused by the declining honeybee populations. We believe that robotic pollinators will be able to move smartly and learn the optimal pollination path by using GPS and artificial intelligence.”

There is a wow factor inherent in this kind of science. The tangible outcomes are addictive and seductive. It takes very little effort for us to accept the ‘fact’ that artificial pollinators work when we can actually witness a flying hair-covered robot dive-bombing an open lily. It takes far more effort, when faced with a cleared, barren landscape, for us to accept the fact that natural pollinators work more effectively, and have worked for centuries, provided that we change the way we use the landscape to allow them to persist.

A few points to consider from this story:

– What price interdisciplinarity? Research that blends concepts, methods and ideas across disciplines is vital for achieving sustainability goals. But we need to be careful about how we assess the value of interdisciplinary research. This study is written by material engineers and chemists, not ecologists. And pollination is an ecological process – it only happens because of the interaction between a plant and its environment.

– The paper, and its media coverage, makes the common mistake of focussing on the honey bee (Apis species) as the only pollinator we need to worry about. There are seven recognised species of honey bee in the world, out of about 20,000 total bee species. There are also about 100,000+ other animal species of pollinator in the world, including flies, beetles, moths, wasps, sawflies, butterflies, bats, birds and mammals. Honey bees are not even the most effective pollinator for thousands of plant species. And many plants are pollinated by wind and water…but climate change is affecting global wind, rainfall and waterflow patterns.

– Artificial ILG-hair-covered pollinators are not an economically viable option to replace all these pollinators in every ecosystem across the world.

– The authors use Lilium japonicum to test the robo pollinator’s ability, because they claim it is ‘representative of entomophilous plants’. It is not, and most pollination ecologists would know this. An entomophilous plant is a plant that is pollinated by insects. But, contrary to the authors’ assumptions, entomophilous plants range very broadly in their physical characteristics. The lily the authors use is pictured below. Each pale pink open flower with extended red stamens (the parts that produce pollen) occurs singly on long stems. Globally, plants that are pollinated by insects can have red, blue, white, yellow, pink and orange flowers; they can have tubular, bowl-shaped or wide open flowers; they can have strong scents or no scents; they can occur in large, single flowers, or small clusters of multiple flowers. Many of these ‘entomophilous plants’ have very specialised flowers that are not able to be pollinated by honey bees.


–  Ecologists face a hard, but not impossible challenge, to communicate the value of nature relative to the value of technology. Technology is the sexy short-term solution, and nature is in it for the long-term. Changing the way we manage landscapes so pollinators are able to look after themselves is a lot cheaper in the long-term than building thousands of artificial pollinators to fill in the gaps immediately.

© Manu Saunders 2017

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