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Should We Use Drones to Pollinate Crops?

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 (Jim Eklund/USDA)

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was written by Natalia Font, Kyler White and Kassandra Perez, students at Marian University.

Featured Media Resource
VIDEO: Science Magazine

Could This Pollinating Drone Replace Butterflies and Bees?
As bee populations continue to decline, scientists are developing a drone that can be controlled to pollinate plants.

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Should We Use Drones to Help Bees Pollinate Plants? #DoNowUDrone

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Learn More About “Bee” Drones and Pollination

For the past 10 years, beekeepers in the United States and Europe have been reporting a 30 percent annual decline in honey bee populations, which is considered higher than what is sustainable. This affects the pollination of plants, and most importantly to us, the pollination of fruits and vegetables, such as avocados, apples and onions. From April 2015 to April 2016 alone, bee populations in the U.S. dropped by 44 percent. Although bees are considered pests by many people in the general population, farmers know that honey bees are essential to the agriculture industry. Honey bees pollinate plants by unknowingly collecting pollen sacs on their legs and then distributing them as they fly from flower to flower to collect nectar. Globally, 43 of the top food crops are either entirely dependent or highly dependent on animal pollination. While honey bees are not the only insects that pollinate plants, they are the largest insect population to do so. In order to mitigate the effects that a continued loss of honey bees will have on agriculture, Eijiro Miyako, a Japanese scientist, has been working to develop an insect-sized drone that is capable of artificial pollination. The drone has horsehair to simulate the hairs that are on the honey bees’ legs and is coated in ionic liquid gel to help the pollen adhere. While still a ways off from being used in the field, an initial live-model test was successful.


Supporters of the drone argue that this insect-sized robot will help the honey bees do their job more effectively and efficiently. Currently, beehives are shipped around the country in order to have enough bees to pollinate crops. More than 30 million bees are sent to California every year just to pollinate the almond trees (700 billion almond flowers!). Bees are also trucked to states in the north and south to pollinate everything from pumpkins to blueberries. Miyako’s “bee” drones could eventually reduce the need to move an ever-dwindling population of bees around the country. If created en masse, the drones could be sent to areas of the world with the greatest need for honey bees.

Opponents of using “bee” drones argue that the drones will throw off natural processes or lessen the concern about the decline of bee populations. They also argue that it will also cost an enormous amount of money. Depending on the amount the drones would cost to produce, the cost of renting them could be huge–consider that one beehive contains 20,000-80,000 bees and roughly one hive is necessary to pollinate one acre. Who would pay for this? The price of produce would likely rise to cover the cost and that cost would ultimately be passed onto the consumer. Another argument against using drones is that honey bees are not the only pollinators–butterflies, moths, ants, wasps, and numerous other insects pollinate crops. Is it possible that those insects would fill the niche left by the honey bees?

What do you think? Should we start using drones to pollinate crops?

More Resources

Audio: NPR
Bees Travel Cross Country For The California Almond Harvest
Hear about the journey of bees to California to pollinate almond trees.

Website: University of Georgia
Pollination: Managing Bees for Pollination
Read about moving bees, their placement and more.

Website: Bee Informed
Nation’s Beekeepers Lost 44 Percent of Bees in 2015-16
Learn about the loss of bee colonies in U.S.

Article: Scientific American
The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping
Read about the complex task of shipping bees from state to state to pollinate a multitude of crops and orchards.

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KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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