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Mutant bees and robotic pollinators: Why beekeepers are concerned for the future

Bees are a fragile and incredibly essential cog in the wheel of agricultural production.

But the indiscriminate use of pesticides and lack of proper regulations are endangering them to the point were mutant variants and robotic analogs are being considered to replace them.

Bees are not only responsible for honey: they are the cornerstone of the food industry. As vital pollinators, they play an indispensable role in the production of food crops, biofuels and medicines.

Today’s supermarkets would look very different without bees. They’re responsible for the pollination of avocados, plums, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pears, nuts and a list of stuff just too long to mention here.

If bees disappear, we’re all basically f*cked. Game over man, game over.

The current situation is so dire that in some parts of China, farmers are pollinating some crops by hand.

The dangers of pesticides are just the beginning, too. In the spring of 2008, millions of bees died of mass poisoning in Germany because of the use of the pesticide clothianidin. Indeed, bees are bombarded by a myriad of threats. Agricultural practices like the current preference towards monocultures are leading to the shrinking of foraging habitats, and a flurry of parasites and diseases are worryingly decimating the populations of commercial bees all over the world.

In face of the dire situation, food industry powerhouses are looking for alternatives.

In March of this year, Walmart filed a series of patents for an autonomous, tiny machine designed as a pollination drone. Their patents include robot bees able to detect pollen and others possessing the ability to hunt down pests. Think A Bug’s Life meets Terminator.

Japan also started researching the viability of tiny robots capable of pollinating plants in the absence of real bees.

In 2013, after a decade’s work and some inspiration from the biology of a fly, Harvard University researchers created a tiny robot with a wingspan of 3cm capable of taking off vertically, hovering, steering, and even sticking to ceilings and walls.

But the most controversial solution to the bee crisis has been the introduction of genetically modified super bees. The technology is still in its infancy, but the plan is to develop “Frankenbees” capable of resisting parasites, diseases and even the most toxic of pesticides.

If governments can’t regulate modern farming practices, then let’s change the bees, right? The reasoning, one has to accept, is frightening.

Today, agrochemical companies thrive by taking hold of both ends of the market. They offer pesticides alongside genetically modified, pesticide-resistant seeds. It’s almost like creating a problem and then selling the solution.

On top of that, farmers are locked into contracts that prevent them from manipulating these seeds to develop their own cross-breeds.

Beekeepers fear the huge agricultural mammoths will bring a similar model to the beekeeping industry with their mutant Frankenbees. After all, pollination is currently the only segment of the production chain they do not control.

Some beekeepers are concerned over how these genetically modified bees will menace the survival of conventional bee strains, and that’s before mentioning nobody knows how the ecological balance will be affected by the introduction of a pesticide-proof, parasite-resistant super bee.

Walter Haefeker, German president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association, isn’t happy about how scientists are approaching the issue.

“Did anybody ask our permission before they took our bees, the bees we have been working on, selecting and breeding within Apimondia, before the scientists decided to take these bees and modify them?” Haefeker told The Guardian.

“We need to keep an eye on this craziness,” he says, “in case they want to use bees to transport their genetically modified viruses into crops.”

The more I think about it, the more I’m paranoid about a sting from these monsters. Will it turn you into Jeff Goldblum a la The Fly? Or perhaps even Bumblebee Man from The Simpsons?

On a more serious note, the prospect of lab-engineered bees is getting mixed reactions from beekeepers and consumers to say the least; many are afraid their adoption could mean the extinction of the Apis mellifera, the European honeybee we all know and love.

In the face of decimating populations of bees all over the world, should we resort to Frankenbees? Or is this a case where the cure will be worse than the disease?

Via The Guardian

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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