“The apple trees were coming into bloom, but no bees droned among the blossoms,” wrote Rachel Carson, 60 years ago, in the opening chapter of Silent Spring. She imagined a future town with no birds, no insects, no flowers, just illness and death. The reason? All around life has been poisoned by pesticides. But what if, instead of bees droning, were in their place hundreds of drones droning – using artificial intelligence to do the work of pollinating the apple trees?
The celebrated US conservationist and author’s premonition of pesticide-fuelled climate breakdown where pollinators no longer roam is getting ever closer. Can technology offer a solution to our growing biodiversity crisis?
Every so often a headline will shout about the coming of the robo-bees, with the vision of a dystopian future where drones, not insects, ‘buzz’ from flower-to-flower. In 2018 the University of West Virginia in the US developed the BrambleBee, which pollinates plants using a robotic arm. Israeli tech company Arugga claims to be the first company to commercialise a robot able to replicate buzz pollination in tomato greenhouses. ‘Polly’, which isn’t at all bee-like in appearance, has been set to work in Finland, where the long dark winter days make it hard for bees to pollinate crops and so they need supplementing with manual pollination. The robot will now do the hard labour and it also collects plant health data, allowing farmers to make informed decisions about treatment.
A more recent example can be found in a joint venture between the University of Stirling in Scotland, and the University of Massachusetts. They have received funding to build tiny robots that can reproduce the buzz of pollinating bees. Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, told Investigate Europe that the aim of the project is not to replace natural pollinators. “We’re not looking for a mechanical way to replace what thousands of bee species around the world do.” Rather, he says, the goal is “to understand why it is important to conserve different types of bees.”
Bee conservation is a growing concern. Almost three-quarters of the world’s most essential food crops are pollinated by bees, according to the UN, but numbers are falling as industrial agriculture expands and rampant pesticide use persists. European beekeepers have warned that colony numbers have declined over the last 15 years, while experts have estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species face extinction in Europe.
Dave Goulson, Biology Professor at the University of Sussex, agrees with Vallejo-Martian that robo-bees can never been a replacement for the real thing. “Real bees are very good at pollinating, and they have been doing it for 120 million years,” he says. “So why on earth do we think we can do better by building little robots? It is nuts. But people are taking that seriously as an option.”
All plants that are not crops would not be robo-pollinated, he adds, while the biggest thing that insects do is actually not pollination, but recycling. They recycle any kind of dead material, something which, Goulson says, a robo-bee would not.
Trillions of robo-bees would be needed to replace all natural pollinators, according to Alan Dorin of Monash University in Australia, a process he describes as unrealistic and economically impossible for most farmers. Robo-bees are environmentally damaging to create and dispose of, Dorin says, and they can pose serious risks to wildlife.
Assisting not replacing
Robo-bees may not be buzzing around our fields any time soon, but with the global agricultural robotics market expected to be worth $20 billion by 2025, technology-assisted farming that aids the environment is set to take off.
The UK-based Small Robot Company (SRC) hopes that farmers will use AI and robotics to work with the environment and make food production more sustainable. They hope to replace heavy tractors with the more environmentally friendly lightweight robots and help farmers reduce costs and inputs such as herbicides and fertilisers.
They currently have three robot models – Tom, Dick and Harry – that monitor, treat and plant crops autonomously. Tom, for example, scans the field to create a map of where plants are and what each one needs. This data is fed to an AI advice model that creates a treatment map advising farmers on what action to take.
SRC says herbicide applications can be cut nearly 80 per cent with the technology and it is set to roll out the products to 50 UK farms later this year. A 2019 crowdfunding campaign secured £1m, much of which, the company says, came from farmers, and support for the technology appears to be growing. Tom Jewers was attracted by the prospect of reducing chemicals on his farm in Suffolk. “The ability to treat only the plants that actually need it is game-changing,” he told Farmers Weekly.
Amid rising global prices, the motivations for farmers in the UK – and across Europe – to reduce chemical use is economical as well as environmental. “With the increasing cost of inputs, farmers and growers are keen to reduce their reliance on a range of products, including pesticides,” Dr Dawn Teverson from industry-affiliated group Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) told IE by email.
Experiments into farming techniques is a centuries-old tradition. It was in 1843 at Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agriculture research institutes in the world, that the first wheat seeds were planted in Broadbalk field in Hertfordshire, England. These seeds were to become the classical Rothamsted long-term experiments, laying the foundations of modern scientific agriculture and establishing the principles of crop nutrition.
Broadbalk has been under continuous scientific study ever since and helps scientists understand how fertilisers can improve crop yield. This is just one of the ways science is being used to improve food production. Rothamsted’s Plant Pathologist Dr Kevin King is working to develop advance warning systems to farmers for fungal pathogens and help prevent “wasteful spraying with fungicides”.
Fungal pathogens can wreak havoc on crops. King and his colleagues are developing an air monitoring device to measure the amount of spores in the air. This will help them understand how the pathogen behaves, and so how best to manage and control it. They relay this information to farmers with “the idea being that if a farmer or grower can know what exactly is happening in their field at any given time,” King says. “Then they can take preventative measures to try and manage the disease.”
The Rothamsted estate is scattered with various insect traps, part of the Insect Survey overseen by Dr James Bell. The work his team does now has its origins in a survey started in 1964. They use two types of traps, one at 12.2 metres to take the landscape view of insects flying at that height and the shorter traps that give a more granular view of behaviour. As with the fungal spores research, these traps are used to predict threats from insect pests and produce bulletins for farmers. Even from their origins in the spray-happy 1960s, they were set up to reduce the use of insecticides.
“We believed in 1964 that if we communicated with farmers, we could actually change their behaviour, and that’s just what we do today with forecasts and data,” Bell says.
But changing behaviour isn’t going to be easy. Investigate Europe’s latest investigation laid bare Europe’s pesticide problem and the resistance among farmers, industry and some politicians to support laws on pesticide reductions and data collection. Meanwhile, the charity Food Watch recently described a self-reinforcing cycle of pesticide use that is creating fragile agricultural production systems where farmers are increasingly dependent on chemicals.
It is not only the diversity of plants, insects and birds that is threatened by today’s agricultural system. So are farmers themselves, argue critics.
“We see less and less farmers. They have less and less profits,” Green MEP Bas Eickhout recently said. “We see that our rural areas are under threat. On top of that, we see the impact of climate change affecting our farmers. We see the loss of biodiversity.”
It is likely technology does have a role to play in helping farmers escape this cycle, but it’s a small part of a bigger need for a system change and not a replacement for what nature is currently doing and has been doing for millions of years. For free.