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By Thomas Phippen
Scientists hope drones can become the new bees if the critical pollinators continue to die off.
One group of researchers have developed a working four-propeller drone that can fill the role of honeybees, butterflies and other pollinators by flying from flower to flower, gently brushing pollen molecules onto petals, Science Magazine reports.
The drone is equipped with a horsehair brush coated with a sticky substance on its underside. The liquid coating, an ionic liquid gel, is one of the key results of the research. The gel had to be the right viscosity to be able to “lift-and-stick-again” — or, pick up pollen pollen grains from one flower and deposit them on another.
Worker bees, also called “drones,” are critical to plant health. Bees fly from flower to flower collecting nectar for honey or pollen for food, and in the process they carry the pollen grains to other blossoms, which fertilizes seeds.
The researchers hope that such “artificial plant pollinators should lead to the development of high-performance robotics that can help counter the decline in honeybee populations,” the authors say in the study published in the journal Cell Thursday.
Collecting pollen with the unmanned aerial vehicle wasn’t very efficient, but with an automatic transmission system, artificial intelligence and a GPS system, the robot pollinators could be more effective, the researchers said.
Expert are still unsure why the bees are dying, but as bees are principal pollinators for agriculture crops, declining populations means “beekeepers will be unable to meet demand for this and other crops,” according to the Department of Agriculture.
In its first comprehensive report on bee populations, the USDA said the total bee population declined 17 percent between January 2015 and January 2016.
Beekeepers first started worrying about what’s called colony collapse disorder more than 10 years ago, when they noticed their bees were dying by the thousands. Some beekeepers reported that 90 percent of their colonies died in 2006, due in part to malicious fungi and parasitic mites.
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