Replacing Pollinators with Drones?

    [fa icon="user"] Janice Sina [fa icon="folder-open'] Bees, Environment

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    Most of us are familiar with the water cycle and the food web, cycles in nature that move substances in a never-ending loop, each stage vital. Think of it like a clock. Each hour, each minute, belongs just where it is. But what if 2:00 disappeared? Eight o’clock wouldn’t happen at the right time and as each cycle with a missing 2:00 progressed, eventually the whole concept would be so off kilter that chaos would be a likely ending.

    The Pollination Cycle

    There’s another cycle out there in nature that’s just as important and garnering more attention these days and that’s the pollination cycle.

    It’s actually part of a food web. Plants grow and flower, pollinators like honeybees, native bees, wasps and butterflies take nectar from these flowers for food, birds, skunks and other small mammals eat the insects, larger omnivores eat these, and top carnivores eat them. Bacteria and fungi break everything down, returning nutrients to the soil and the cycle begins again. But woven in this is another important cycle for the plants. When the insects dine on the nectar they offer, they conveniently distribute pollen among the male and female parts of the plants, allowing fertilization to occur, fruits to grow, and seeds to develop, ensuring another generation. As a happy coincidence, humans have benefited from these fruits.

    So, let’s figuratively remove 2:00; let’s remove the pollinators. Uh-oh.  Little fertilization (because, yes, some plants are pollinated by other means such as wind) or no fertilization means little or no fruit and seeds for future generations. Consider that about one-third of the fruit (and this includes many “vegetables” like tomatoes) we eat depends on this process; Big-industry foods, like almonds and apples, tomatoes and oranges. Unfortunately, we have removed many of the pollinators in recent years, through overuse of pesticides, habitat loss and monoculture farming with its specific bloom times that leaves pollinators starving the rest of the season. We’ve severely diminished the 2:00 hour these days.

    What to do?

    Technology, our modern day hero, has come up with a solution: pollinating drones. Japanese researchers have designed a tiny drone capable of pollinating a particular flower. It’s a start, and so many technologically-minded millennials would say, “cool!” (ok, I’m showing I’m not a millennial here; maybe they would say “awesome!” instead, or is that not cool anymore either?).

    But think about it.

    First, can we really swap out one part of these life-sustaining cycles for a mechanized version? It’s been done before. Dams, monocultures, domestication of major protein sources, oil production. None have been without negative environmental consequences. Drones are only as smart as the humans that program them and there is so much more we don’t know about interactions between pollinators and plants.

    What natural processes are we interfering with by using mechanical drones? Drones don’t emanate pheromones, or mimic the subtle energy of one living thing as it interacts with another. They haven’t coevolved with plants to be in tune with day length, flowering time, scent and readiness of pollen granules to fertilize the ovules at the base of each different species of flower. Bees are geniuses.

    Even if scientists create a pollinating drone based on what we do know, it couldn’t be as simple as one size fits all. Think of all the types of flowers out there and how very different they are. There would have to be multiple models of drones, each with specialized parts and specialized programs to accommodate flower structure and flowering times. This cost would surely be passed on to the consumer.

    Yes, drones are emerging technology and it’s interesting to find new uses for them. But money and resources spent on their manufacture could be better directed towards efforts to mitigate habitat loss, conquer Colony Collapse Disorder, and develop better controls for mites and the viruses they vector.

    Nature or technology, or a balanced combination?

    There are opinions, there are facts, there are exaggerations and false claims. There’s good research and observation on both sides, and millions of dollars spent. In the end, I find myself in the natural camp. We can woo the pollinators back with native flowering plants, limited use of safer pesticides, and naturalized areas near crops. Consumer education, grass roots and it-takes-a-village kind of thinking. As I watch the bees in my apiary instinctively doing what they do, it’s all the more reason to double my efforts to help sustain this unique relationship in nature.

    Technology has its place in our society – communication, safety, powering artificial limbs, targeting cancer cells. But pollinators? Mechanizing this process breaks a comprehensive cycle in nature. Nature is bigger than technology. It is cycles within cycles, cycles dependent on cycles – food webs and water cycles and the slow, slow geochemical cycles of this Earth.

    Some things should be left to nature, or at least helped by humans in a more natural way.

    Invite pollinators to your yard by planting native shrubs and flowers. Fertilize with composted kitchen scraps instead of blue crystals from a box. Protect against “bad” bugs with “good” bugs and Neem oil. Support programs, like the Nature Conservancy, that educate and encourage farmers to cultivate the perimeters of their monocultures in a beautiful wild mass of native plants that flower at different intervals, providing pollinators with resources all season. Support companies that encourage responsible use of pesticides and fertilizers, and that hold our most precious resource, water, in the high regard it deserves.

    This isn’t a video game where drones come out in vast numbers to save a darkened world. It isn’t a fantasy where when it’s Game Over, you can just play again. This is our Earth. It doesn’t have a reset button.


    “I’ve always loved nature and being outdoors, and the sense that humans were doing more harm than good seeped into me like so many others and, though not an activist by any means, I began to take those many small steps to tread lightly on this Earth, live by example, and help wherever I could. Four years ago, I became a beekeeper and the learning curve shot up. Watching and learning about my bees gave me a holistic view of our world and how one small change – good or bad – can have such a ripple effect.”

    – Janice Sina, Savvy Women's Alliance Member and Volunteer

    Janice Sina

    Written by Janice Sina

    Janice Sina, former biology teacher turned veterinary assistant, observes and writes about nature, human and otherwise. She lives in East Haddam CT, where she strives to tread lightly on this Earth with her husband, her pets, and several thousand honeybees. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her first book, Songlines in the Key of B.

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