Posts Tagged ‘bee’

by Amina Khan

One day, gardeners might not just hear the buzz of bees among their flowers, but the whirr of robots, too. Scientists in Japan say they’ve managed to turn an unassuming drone into a remote-controlled pollinator by attaching horsehairs coated with a special, sticky gel to its underbelly.

The system, described in the journal Chem, is nowhere near ready to be sent to agricultural fields, but it could help pave the way to developing automated pollination techniques at a time when bee colonies are suffering precipitous declines.

In flowering plants, sex often involves a threesome. Flowers looking to get the pollen from their male parts into another bloom’s female parts need an envoy to carry it from one to the other. Those third players are animals known as pollinators — a diverse group of critters that includes bees, butterflies, birds and bats, among others.

Animal pollinators are needed for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Chief among those are bees — but many bee populations in the United States have been in steep decline in recent decades, likely due to a combination of factors, including agricultural chemicals, invasive species and climate change. Just last month, the rusty patched bumblebee became the first wild bee in the United States to be listed as an endangered species (although the Trump administration just put a halt on that designation).

Thus, the decline of bees isn’t just worrisome because it could disrupt ecosystems, but also because it could disrupt agriculture and the economy. People have been trying to come up with replacement techniques, the study authors say, but none of them are especially effective yet — and some might do more harm than good.

“One pollination technique requires the physical transfer of pollen with an artist’s brush or cotton swab from male to female flowers,” the authors wrote. “Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort. Another approach uses a spray machine, such as a gun barrel and pneumatic ejector. However, this machine pollination has a low pollination success rate because it is likely to cause severe denaturing of pollens and flower pistils as a result of strong mechanical contact as the pollens bursts out of the machine.”

Scientists have thought about using drones, but they haven’t figured out how to make free-flying robot insects that can rely on their own power source without being attached to a wire.

“It’s very tough work,” said senior author Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan.

Miyako’s particular contribution to the field involves a gel, one he’d considered a mistake 10 years before. The scientist had been attempting to make fluids that could be used to conduct electricity, and one attempt left him with a gel that was as sticky as hair wax. Clearly this wouldn’t do, and so Miyako stuck it in a storage cabinet in an uncapped bottle. When it was rediscovered a decade later, it looked exactly the same – the gel hadn’t dried up or degraded at all.

“I was so surprised, because it still had a very high viscosity,” Miyako said.

The chemist noticed that when dropped, the gel absorbed an impressive amount of dust from the floor. Miyako realized this material could be very useful for picking up pollen grains. He took ants, slathered the ionic gel on some of them and let both the gelled and ungelled insects wander through a box of tulips. Those ants with the gel were far more likely to end up with a dusting of pollen than those that were free of the sticky substance.

The next step was to see if this worked with mechanical movers, as well. He and his colleagues chose a four-propeller drone whose retail value was $100, and attached horsehairs to its smooth surface to mimic a bee’s fuzzy body. They coated those horsehairs in the gel, and then maneuvered the drones over Japanese lilies, where they would pick up the pollen from one flower and then deposit the pollen at another bloom, thus fertilizing it.

The scientists looked at the hairs under a scanning electron microscope and counted up the pollen grains attached to the surface. They found that the robots whose horsehairs had been coated with the gel had on the order of 10 times more pollen than those hairs that had not been coated with the gel.

“A certain amount of practice with remote control of the artificial pollinator is necessary,” the study authors noted.

Miyako does not think such drones would replace bees altogether, but could simply help bees with their pollinating duties.

“In combination is the best way,” he said.

There’s a lot of work to be done before that’s a reality, however. Small drones will need to become more maneuverable and energy efficient, as well as smarter, he said — with better GPS and artificial intelligence, programmed to travel in highly effective search-and-pollinate patterns.

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-robot-bees-20170209-story.html#pt0-805728

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by Merrit Kennedy

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given endangered status to seven species of yellow-faced bees native to the Hawaiian islands. These are “the first bees in the country to be protected under the Endangered Species Act,” according to the Xerces Society, which advocated for the new designation.

The new rule designating protections for the bees, published Friday in the Federal Register, states that yellow-faced bees are known “for their yellow-to-white facial markings.” They look like small wasps, according to the rule, except for their “plumose [branched] hairs on the body that are longest on the sides of the thorax, which readily distinguish them from wasps.”

The yellow-faced bee is the only bee native to Hawaii, meaning that it was able to reach the Hawaiian Islands on its own, according to a fact sheet provided by the University of Hawaii’s Master Gardner Program. “From that one original colonist they evolved into 63 known endemic species, about 10% of the world’s yellow-faced bees and more than are found in this genus in all of North America.”

But the populations of these seven species are getting smaller and smaller, according to Fish and Wildlife. For example, the Hylaeus anthracinus was once found in dozens of locations around Hawaii but is now in only 15 — while Hylaeus hilaris and Hylaeus kuakea are each found only in one location.

The seven endangered species are impacted by a wide variety of threats, including habitat destruction because of urbanization or nonnative animals, the introduction of nonnative plant species, wildfires, nonnative predators and natural events such as hurricanes, tsunamis and drought.

The protected status “will allow authorities to implement recovery programs, access funding and limit their harm from outside sources,” as Gregory Koob of the Fish and Wildlife Service told The Associated Press. He added that “all federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when interacting with endangered species.”

The Xerces Society called the new rule “excellent news” but added that “there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that Hawaii’s bees thrive.”

“These bees are often found in small patches of habitat hemmed in by agricultural land or developments,” the group said. “Unfortunately, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] has not designated any ‘critical habitat’ areas of land of particular importance for the endangered bees.”

As we’ve reported, pollinators are under threat around the world. A U.N.-sponsored report released in February found that “about 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (such as bees and butterflies) are facing extinction.” This could have major implications for world food supply, because “about 75 percent of the world’s food crops … depend at least partly on pollination.”

Despite the threats, the University of Hawaii says these bees “have managed to persist with amazing tenacity.” While this group of species is now endangered, new species of the genus are discovered regularly — “11 new native species have been found in the past 15 years.”

The rule, which goes into effect at the end of the month, also gives the endangered designation to 39 plant species found on the islands and to three other animals native to Hawaii — the band-rumped storm-petrel, the orangeblack Hawaiian damselfly, and the anchialine pool shrimp.

The anchialine pool shrimp is known for its unusual longevity — according to the Hawaii Nature Journal, the shrimp can live for 10 to 15 years in the wild.

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/03/496402620/bee-species-added-to-u-s-endangered-species-list-for-1st-time