Like a Bad B-Movie

If you’ve followed the news recently you’ve probably heard of efforts worldwide to try to create techno-bees, mechanical/computerized replacements for the real thing. The reason is that, as most people are aware, the bees we use most to pollinate our crops are suffering huge die-offs globally due to a malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). What precisely is at fault has been hotly debated, but many in the know believe that a large, if not the largest culprit is our profligate use of pesticides, particularly by farmers. In this case the pesticides are of a class known as neonicotinoids. But as so often happens, politics and vested interests have threatened to upend efforts to phase out these killing chemicals. In January, the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, another pollinator, this one on the verge of extinction, was listed as endangered by the outgoing Obama administration. Soon there after, though, Trump suspended that action. Yeah.

So now we are increasingly left with the prospect of a environment sacrificed for temporary profit with ridiculous techno-bandaids proffered as belated “solutions” to the aftermess rather than just doing the right thing in the first place and protecting what took nature hundreds of millions of years to perfect. Behold our Brave New World.

Japanese pollinating drone

B-Droid Poland

Harvard Version

News of these efforts have been met in the press with breathless headlines like:

Bee optimistic: this drone can still pollinate plants even if all the bees die: Meet the artificial pollinators of tomorrow.

Right.

In China where bees are also dying out people there have turned to hand-pollinating – a rather lame answer if you asked me.

Biologist David Goulson from the University of Sussex in the UK has written about the robobees. Snippets:

“While I can see the intellectual interest in trying to create robotic bees, I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots? Even if the robots could be built, complete with power pack and control devices, for one penny each (which seems absurdly optimistic) it would cost £32 billion to build them. And how long would they last? Some would malfunction, some would get caught out in the rain, some would be damaged by wind or spiders’ webs. If we very optimistically calculate the lifespan at one year, that means spending £32 billion every year (and continually littering the environment with trillions of tiny robots, unless they could be made biodegradable). What about the environmental costs of manufacture? What resources would they require, what carbon footprint would they have? Real bees avoid all of these issues; they are self-replicating, self-powering, and essentially carbon neutral.

“Declines of bees are symptomatic of larger issues. It is not just bees that are declining; almost all wildlife is declining in the face of massive habitat loss and pollution across the globe. Even supposing we could create robot bees cheaply enough for it to be viable, should we? If farmers no longer need to worry about harming bees they could perhaps spray more pesticides, but there are many other beneficial creatures that live in farmland that would be harmed; ladybirds, hoverflies and wasps that attack crop pests, worms, dung beetles and millipedes that help recycle nutrients and keep the soil healthy, and many more. Are we going to make robotic worms and ladybirds too? What kind of world would we end up with?

“Do we have to always look for a technical solution to the problems that we create, when a simple, natural solution is staring us in the face? We have wonderfully efficient pollinators already, let’s look after them, not plan for their demise.”

Opalescence also mentions one version of a futuristic techno-solution to CCD, Synth-O-Life Pollen.

I’ve asked this question many times before, is this really the future we want?

Is there anything we personally can do? Yes!

  • First, stop using pesticides period. If I find a spider or fly in the house I take it outside. Simple (an old audio cassette case works well btw). Insects are drawn by the lingering scent of food in the house. If you need to clean up, then clean up.
  • Next, learn about IPM, a safer way to get rid of pests.
  • Next, talk to your local nursery and ask them not to buy plants from vendors that spray them. I worked for years in plant nurseries and was often disgusted by the amounts of these toxins sprayed on ornamentals just so that customers won’t have to be bothered by the sight of a bug or a tiny hole in a leaf. It’s just stupid (and dangerous: consider that unsuspecting people, including children regularly stick their noses into flowers at nurseries).
  • Sign the Pollinator Protection Pledge.
  • Of course, buy only organic produce (no synthetic pesticides allowed).
  • Boycott those companies that profit from pollution.
  • Contact your local politicians and let them know that you support those who care about the environment.
  • And finally, spread the word.
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