Saving Bees With Robots
Bees are the world’s most important pollinators. They play a crucial role in the sustainability of our food systems, not to mention earth’s delicate natural ecosystems. We literally can’t live without them. Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen a staggering decline in bee populations. Hives have been collapsing at a rate that is creating a very real fear that the natural and agricultural systems that we depend upon may collapse along with our beloved bees.
Researchers are making progress, but bee population decline remains a major threat to human and environmental health. And to make matters worse, the reasons behind massive bee colony collapse remain a bit mysterious. Now that researchers are starting to get a better idea of the source of the problem, however, existing technologies may offer an efficient and effective solution to the ongoing problem of bee population decline.
What’s Happening to the Bees?
Honey bees are a keystone species — that is, their existence is crucial to the existence of a multitude of other species — including humans. And they’re dying faster than we can figure out what to do about it.
The highest rates of bee population decline occurred between 2015 and 2016. During this time, over 40% of American beekeepers lost their hives. How or why this enormous loss occurred in such a short period of time remains unclear. However, recent reports have correlated high rates of colony collapse with a parasitic mite called the varroa destructor, which has been reaping havoc on bee populations since it was first introduced to the United States via Florida in the 1980s.
Infestations of the varroa destructor appears to be a likely culprit for the recent and significant increase in colony collapse throughout the U.S. After infesting a bee colony, the mites feed on the blood of both honey bees’ and their brood of larvae. Sadly, the mites’ feeding habits significantly shorten the life span of adult honey bees and cause offspring to be born with fatal deformations. Although the mite does not actually kill the bees, it does substantially weaken the colony. Unfortunately, since the mite does not directly kill the bees, infestations often go unnoticed until the hive is too far gone to save — leading to their eventual collapse.
Saving Our Planet With Environmental Technology
No exaggeration — a total loss of pollinator species would bring an end to life as we know it. Avoiding a Mad Max situation is pretty much why scientists work so hard to find solutions to environmental problems. More often than not, these solutions are biological or chemical — a reduction in one substance, or an increase in another. As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, however, researchers are finding more and more environmental solutions through computing.
To manage the risk of total bee colony collapse, recent studies have suggested using technology as a replacement for natural pollinators. In reality, however, no technology can be more efficient than the bee itself. Any technology used to replace bees would have to be incredibly sophisticated (expensive) to be able to sustain the world’s agricultural needs and the natural ecosystems that rely on natural pollinators to thrive. Thus, rather than a replacement, biologists are looking for a fix.
Rather than creating a replacement for natural systems already in place, researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)as a tool to help solve the growing problem of bee colony collapse. How? We’ll explain.
AI — ML — WTF?
AI and ML are essentially software programs that are coded to figure stuff out on their own. Threats of world domination aside, they are really good at sorting through large quantities of dense data to find or identify a particular target. Sophisticated technologies do this all the time — this is how targeted ads work and most of social media. As useful as it’s been in eliminating any semblance of consumer privacy, these same applications can also be used to sort through other forms of data — such as random shapes — and identify a particular target. So, for example, an AI application can be programmed to target the shape of a dead varroa destructor mite. This would help identify infestations before they triggered a colony collapse.
Saving bees with robots — great idea, but it sounds a bit far-fetched. Well fortunately, crazy people come in all types, and some scientists have been crazy enough to actually try it.
Smartphone Apps Save Hives
Students at a facility at a university in Switzerland recently created an image recognition tool called ApiZoom. Its primary function is to identify images of mites. Bee keepers can simply snap photos of their hives on their smart phones and run them through ApiZoom. The app can sort through a photo of a hive and identify any visible mite bodies within seconds. Early testing of the ApiZoom app achieved a success rate of nearly 90%.
The varroa destructor mite continues to play a devastating role in the overall decline in bee populations. But technological advancements are helping. ApiZoom is not yet available to the public, but soon beekeepers will be able to use their smartphones to detect even the lowest levels of mite infestation, giving them a chance to deal with them before they get out of hand.
Keep in mind that the varroa destructor mite is not the only contributor to bee decline. There are plenty of human practices that also put bees in danger, and every year bee populations continue to drop. But advances in computing are giving biologists new hope. With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, technology and environmental science will come together to solve one of the world’s most devastating environmental issues.