Mark Grossman: Robotic Bees and Mini-Drone Surveillance Bees

25 July 2013

Scientists at Harvard are working on the development the first robotic bee. They hope that their robo-bee will, someday, be able to pollinate flowers and crops just like the organic original: the honeybee.

Beginning in 2009, Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” has used titanium and plastic to replicate the functions, if not the appearance, of the familiar honeybee. The robo-bee pops up, complete with wings, from a quarter-sized metal disk. The the creators hope that, one day, “robo-bees” will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and coordinate both their target locations and pollination methodologies.

In fact, the researcher’s vision of the future “robo-bee” is so striking that one writer expressed the wish that the project’s spokesperson add the phrase “for the good of all mankind” to each progress report. Without it, readers might be reminded of all the movies “about technology that eventually destroys mankind.” In fact, the robo-bee may help save us or, at least, save our food supply.

Bees have been dropping like (the proverbial) flies for over 7 years now. The current bee depopulation was termed a “disappearance,” then, a “die-off” and, now, is formally referred to as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The decline in bee populations continues at an alarming rate. However, bee die-offs are not just a part of modern life. There have been a number of die-offs in that last couple of centuries. The original European honeybee disappeared from Europe long ago. Its successor, our modern honeybee, was imported from Turkey into Europe and, then, into the United States.

Bees get a lot of scientific attention because they are vital to American agriculture, which is vital to the American economy. Without bees, production of some of our most profitable crops would be impossible. Every few weeks, a news article announces the discovery of “the cause” of the threatened bee “extinction.” Blaming pesticides is almost fashionable. However, these sensational claims do little more than draw attention to particular studies, and the involved researchers. In fact, there probably isn’t a single cause. The current die-off seems to be the result of several factors working together. Sadly, our familiar honeybee may be gone long before the exact combination of factors can be found.

The puzzle goes like this. A bee (1) has a parasite like varroa mites; (2) is exhausted by transport over long distances; and (3) is exposed to a particular pesticide. Alone, none of these factors would kill a bee. Even all of these put together wouldn’t kill a bee. However, all of these put together might weaken the bee’s immune system. Then, with a compromised immune system, the bee contracts, and dies from, a completely unrelated disease. That disease is the final cause the bee’s death. However, the underlying cause is an immune system compromised, not by one factor, but by a particular combination of several factors. For now, that combination remains a mystery.

While science fiction films have portrayed the replacement of human beings with robots, films have never explored the possibly sinister side of robo-bee. Imagine a robotic “Stepford Bee” hiding quietly in the wings waiting for death of the last honeybee. And, then, a “brave new” technological world–without any bees at all!

There is something a bit creepy about human-engineered bees pollinating crops grown from human-engineered seeds. One writer described the disturbing vision as “swarms of tiny robot bees . . . pollinating those vast dystopian fields of GMO cash crops.”

By the way, one developer of those “GMO cash crops,” Monsanto, sponsored a recent “Bee Health Summit” in Saint Louis, Missouri. A company spokesperson acknowledged that the beekeepers might have heard some “scary stuff” about Monsanto. The summit is the company’s effort to “introduce itself to the beekeeping industry” and “raise their comfort level.” And there was some discomfort with one beekeeping guest commenting, “I can’t believe I’m at Monsanto.”

On the comforting side, Monsanto is after one of the oldest and most clearly identified factors in declining bee health, the parasitic varroa mite, which spreads a variety of viruses to honeybees. Researchers with Beeologics, one of Monsanto’s recent acquisitions, are planning to use RNA, a genetic regulator that determines how a plant or insect “works.” The RNA would be fed to the bee and, then, would be ingested by the mites. Once in the mite’s system, the RNA would “turn off” the mite’s virus transmitting gene.

With this RNA intervention, and other technologies, our honeybees may yet be saved from relative extinction.  Then, their robotic replacements would have to remain on the shelf.  But hold on. Genetically engineering the mite is only one step closer to genetically engineering the honey bee. So, we may be saved from robotic bees by . . . GMO bees?

Well, as our GMO bees pollinate our GMO crops, we can only feel a pang of sorrow for our robo-bee languishing in the shadows. With a revived, genetically engineered super-honeybee, where could a robotic bee go? What would it do?

No problem.  Harvard’s Micro Air Vehicles Project had that covered from the beginning.  The project’s published reports also suggest potential military uses. So, robo-bee, with some market repositioning, becomes the world’s smallest drone.

Well, if Monsanto “saves” the honeybee, who will be interested in our newly re-branded and repositioned mini-drones? Again, possibly Monsanto, which, at least once in the past, retained a private security contractor “to protect its GMO crops.”   The “protection” was less exciting than it sounds. It was limited to the simple monitoring of public information.

Still, what security company couldn’t use swarms of surveillance mini-drones?  So, if Monsanto needs security in the future, robo-bee might play a part in the security provider’s services.

Finally, we end up with yet another, unexpected vision of our future.  Just picture it.  We stand watching the setting sun as swarms of genetically engineered super-bees pollinate “dystopian fields of GMO cash crops,” while we, ourselves, are closely surveilled by swarms of robo-bees or, rather, “mini-drones.”

Why does everything just keep getting weirder?

The End?

[Author’s Note: Actually, Robo-Bee is a long, long way from rolling off the assembly line and into the fields. Even farther away are the technologies and knowledge necessary to genetically engineer anything as complicated as an insect.]

Selected Source Links:

Harvard scientists unleash the robot bees

Robotic Bees to Pollinate Monsanto Crops, 04/08/13, Russ McSpadden http://earthfirstnews.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/robotic-bees-to-pollinate-monsanto-crops/

Monsanto hopes to win over beekeepers with cure, 06/14/13, Georgina Gustin http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/monsanto-hopes-to-win-over-beekeepers-with-cure/article_19e82066-0e5f-5a57-bcfd-9232d81db401.html

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