Robot bees, or mechanical bees, are machines designed to do the work of actual bees, like pollinating plants, as well as monitor the health of bee hives. They are used to increase productivity in the agriculture industry, particularly as the global bee population grows more fragile.
What Are Robot Bees?
Robot bees, also referred to as mechanical bees, are machines designed to mimic the work of actual bees. They are most commonly used in pollination, but can be used to monitor hive health as well.
Indeed, bees play a critical role in agriculture, helping to pollinate some 35 percent of the world’s food crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And honey bees, specifically, pollinate more than 90 commercially grown crops in the United States alone, including apples, broccoli and almonds. For the most part, these bees are a managed species, like livestock, and they are transported from one place to another to pollinate crops that eventually yield the fruits and vegetables we all consume.
While there is no looming threat of global food supply shortages due to mass bee extinction — as has been widely reported — honey bees still face significant challenges. Commoditized bees are particularly vulnerable to various parasites and diseases, and they have strict dietary needs.
“You’ve got these complex supply and demand curves going on. And our pollinators are able to meet most of the demand, but not all of it,” Simon Potts, a professor of biodiversity and ecosystem services at the University of Reading, told Built In. “There is just a bigger and bigger demand for insect pollinated crops across the world.”
Robot bees present a potential solution to this problem.
How Are Robot Bees Being Used?
Researchers and engineers from around the world have been experimenting with ways robots can do the work of real bees. Their creations come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some fly around with propellers and use ionic liquid gel-coated horse hair bristles to collect and transfer pollen from one plant to another. Others have flexible wings powered by “artificial muscles” and use an electrostatic patch to perch on just about anything. And some don’t fly at all, but instead roll on the ground and pollinate flowers by blasting them with pulses of air.
Following some major breakthroughs in the last several years, many of these projects are not far off from regular commercial use.
Bearing resemblance to a push lawn mower, the company’s machine is capable of imitating the best natural approach of pollinating specific crops. One is a “cross pollination mechanism,” which uses an electric charge to collect pollen from one flower and apply it to another by passing between rows of crops — similar to how honey bees pollinate. Another uses vibration at the base of a plant to initiate the release of pollen, mimicking how bumble bees pollinate crops like blueberries and strawberries.
This approach, according to BloomX’s founder and CEO Thai Sade, is more efficient and sustainable than using commoditized honey bees. When they are used generically, and shipped from place to place in an unnatural way, bees are forced to withstand different climates and environments in which they cannot work to their full potential, resulting in unhealthier bees and lower crop outputs.
“Honey bees, as a creature, have different preferences, different attractions to flowers, different ways they pollinate technically. So they are not aligned if you want to pollinate many crops commercially,” Sade told Built In.
Since 2020, BloomX’s technology has been used to assist in growing avocados, as well as blueberries in South America. It is also in the R&D phase of launching a machine made specifically for use in greenhouses, a rapidly growing market in food production.
Several other companies are looking to imitate the pollination process with robots as well. Bluewhite Robotics has used drones to pollinate date palms in the Arabah region, apples in Northern Israel and almond orchards in California. And Arugga is reportedly the first company to commercialize robotic pollination for greenhouse-grown tomatoes; its AI-powered robot scoots up and down rows of tomato plants, uses computer vision to determine whether a given plant is ready for pollination, and then blitzes the flowers with calibrated streams of air to initiate pollination. BrambleBee, developed at West Virginia University, uses a similar method with its robots to pollinate blackberries.
Maintain Hive Health
Other researchers aren’t focused on imitating pollinators at all. Rather, they are building robots that maintain colony health.
RoboRoyale is a project that is working to combine micro-robotic, biological and machine learning technologies into a system that can support the well-being of a hive’s queen bee. Researchers from Durham University, University of Graz, Czech Technical University and Middle East Technical University have developed a six-legged device that operates around the queen, with a central camera for monitoring her, as well as six individual “artificial agents” that are the size of actual honey bees. These little robots are designed to take care of some of the tasks ordinarily handled by a queen bee’s court, such as grooming her, feeding her and moving her around the hive so that she can do what she does best: Lay eggs.
On average, a hive has 20,000 to 30,000 bees — the majority of which are simply pollinators that travel many miles around their hive to all kinds of flowers, creating honey for the hive. Then there’s the queen’s court, also known as worker bees, which take care of the queen. The queen is the mother of most, if not all, of the bees in a hive. She can live upwards of five years, laying between 175,000 to 200,000 eggs per year. Queens are the central figure in the hive’s operation, which is why RoboRoyale focuses its attention there — the health of a queen largely indicates the health of the entire hive, as well as its pollination efficiency.
“If we can control an entire colony’s behavior with just the queen, this is a minimally invasive way of interacting with them.”
“If we can control an entire colony’s behavior with just the queen, this is a minimally invasive way of interacting with them,” Farshad Arvin, an associate professor in robotics at Durham University and coordinator for the RoboRoyale project, told Built In. “If we want to increase pollination in some time of the year, we can regulate [the hive’s foragers’ flights] by adjusting some RoboRoyale system parameters.”
RoboRoyale is in the early stages of experimentation and development. It currently works with domesticated honey bee hives at the University of Graz in Austria, which maintains its own observation hives. The ultimate goal is to commercialize the product, providing observation hives and RoboRoyale robots that beekeepers can then use for their own colonies and queens. Arvin said this will hopefully happen in the next ten years.
“We are not going to replace them, but we give them benefits so they can survive,” he continued. “We strengthen their system. We help them, but we let them do pollination.”
Advantages of Robot Bees
Whether they’re used for pollination or for health monitoring, robot bees have the potential to provide a variety of benefits for the agriculture industry.
More Productive Than Real Bees
So far, many robot bee projects have been successful. Sade claims farmers using BloomX’s can yield upwards of 20 to 40 percent more crops than if they used commercial honey bees. The performance of Arugga’s bots are reportedly on par with the bumblebees it is trying to mimic — in some cases better by as much as 5 percent.
Then there’s the added bonus of these robots’ ability to collect and analyze crop data along the way, giving growers more control and allowing them to make more informed decisions about ways to improve their yield.
And while RoboRoyale is still in its infancy, Arvin said its tiny robots could have a big economic impact.
“If we can contribute to increased pollination, that means higher quality agriculture [and] better food production,” Arvin said. “And if we can increase the wellbeing of the queen — a strong queen, a strong colony, means better honey production.”
More Resilient Than Commercial Honey Bees
The majority of bee pollination today is done with commoditized honey bees, not wild ones. And the ways they are being transported and used is not sustainable.
“They are not supposed to be working commercially in an agricultural environment, because agriculture is not nature,” Sade said. “The way we use them is very unsustainable. For their health, for the environment, for the land.”
And because of climate change, honey bees are increasingly acting in ways that are not beneficial to their hive’s survival, or pollination. For example, unseasonably hot days may trigger a queen bee’s court to prepare her to lay eggs at the wrong time of the year, which can be dangerous to the survival of the entire hive. RoboRoyale’s microbots can head that off by surrounding the queen to prevent the court from getting close to her.
Bumblebees are another commonly used pollinator, but many countries don’t allow them to be imported in order to prevent them from becoming an invasive species. Arugga seeks to work mostly in countries where importing bumblebees isn’t allowed. In Australia, for example, the pollination process is handled with manual labor. In that case, Arugga claims its robots have demonstrated yield improvements of up to 20 percent.
Arugga’s robots can also help growers avoid the many inefficiencies that come with normal bumblebee pollination. For instance, bumblebees cannot work in extreme heat, and they can transmit viruses between flowers. Robot bees don't have problems like that.
Safer to Use in Greenhouses
Robot bees have the potential to act as quasi wild pollinators in greenhouses, without requiring that the whole greenhouse be opened up to the actual wild.
That’s important because greenhouses are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to outdoor farms. These are closely monitored environments, so there is no need for pesticides.
“The problem with these closed systems is that, quite often, they don’t have wild pollinators coming in from the environment. Because if you open it up to the environment, then pests are going to get in and that’s an issue for food quality,” Potts said.
Disadvantages of Robot Bees
At the same time, using robot bees comes with its fair share of potential challenges. And environmentalists like Potts remain skeptical.
Potential Damage to the Environment
Mining for the metals that go into our technology negatively impacts the environment, and a mass creation of robot bees would only add to that.
Then, if a robot bee breaks while it’s out in the field, it could just sit there, along with the heavy metals, lithium battery and other toxins it is full of — potentially to be consumed by birds and mammals or absorbed by the soil and surrounding crops.
Could Be a New ‘Invasive Species’
Introducing a new pollinator — even a mechanical one — out in the wild could have a huge impact on a given area’s biodiversity. Unless they are explicitly programmed to do it, robot bees likely won’t pollinate things like wildflowers the way bees do, which could have deep ramifications across an entire ecosystem.
“There’s this whole food web that’s secured by having bees pollinate wildflowers,” Potts said. “If you were to replace those bees, then the wildflower communities would start to collapse, which would then impact all our birds and mammals. It would mean whole communities would go into these extinction cascades.”
Even if robot bees didn’t entirely replace real bees, there is a danger of them becoming a sort of “invasive species,” as Potts put it. That would result in a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
“When you introduce something like an alien species that shouldn’t be there, it basically shakes up the whole system,” Potts said. “It’s almost like it would be an invasion on a global scale.”
Lack the ‘Flexibility and Sophistication’ of Real Bees
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all for robot bees is the very nature of the task at hand: Doing the work of actual bees.
Real bees can fly for hours and remain stable in wind and rain. They seek out flowers that are miles away from their homes and use sophisticated olfactory and visual cues to find not only the right flower, but the right parts of that flower to pick up and drop off pollen. They’re a product of millions of years of evolution.
Of course, all of these abilities and behaviors come naturally to a real bee, but are incredibly difficult for even the smartest of robots. What’s more, many crops require “specialist behaviors and techniques,” according to Potts, and bees have a “whole repertoire” of behaviors they can use according to whatever flower they’re interacting with. Even if they’re presented with a totally new flower, bees are smart enough that they can work out how to get pollen from it.
“That flexibility and sophistication, I think they’re so far away from being able to [replicate],” Potts said. “Why replace something that is an absolute black belt at doing it — superb — with something that isn’t?”
“Why replace something that is an absolute black belt at doing it — superb — with something that isn’t?”
And yet, we may not have much of a choice. The global population is expected to grow by 25 percent to about 10 billion people by 2050. To meet the demand, food production will need to increase drastically. So will the number of pollinators, particularly honey bees, which are already facing their own unique challenges in the face of habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and other factors. We may need the help of robot bees to help keep us afloat.
“I don’t think we will replace all the bees in the world. We also need them,” BloomX’s Sade said. “We need to work much better with our planet Earth. Our resources are limited, and we need to be very, very cost-effective environmentally and financially on how we use our resources.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Do robot bees exist?
Yes — robot bees exist and are being used in research and to pollinate crops in some parts of the world.
How much does a robot bee cost?
Manufacturing a robot bee may cost up to $10,000, though costs can vary based on the robot bee's design, materials, functional requirements and whether it will operate manually or automatically.
Are there disadvantages to robot bees?
Yes — potential disadvantages of robot bees include:
- Damaging the environment
- Becoming an invasive species
- Lacking the capabilities and sophistication of real bees