Drones Might Rescue Us From a Bumblebee Dystopia

Scientists are preparing for a world without bees.

YouTube/ Eijiro Miyako

In the final days of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule that designated the rusty patched bumblebee — Bombus affinis — an endangered species. It was a promising moment for conservation, in light of concerns over shrinking bee populations across the United States. But this Friday, the day it was supposed to join the list, the situation began to deteriorate for the rusty patched bumblebee. This is just one federal rule that the Trump administration halted as part of the regulatory freeze White House chief of staff Reince Priebus imposed on inauguration day. As of this article’s publication, the Department of the Interior (the agency under whose jurisdiction the USFWS falls), pushed the date back to March 21.

This move is troubling. If for some reason the USFWS can’t designate the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species, the consequences could be severe. Losing bees means a decrease in biodiversity that could shift ecosystems in unpredictable ways. This includes the possibility that some agricultural crops could become useless if there are no bees to pollinate them. But scientists have been prepping for the future.

In a move straight out of Black Mirror, scientists may try to compensate for the immense agricultural shortfalls that would come if bees no longer pollinated crops. In 2012, Harvard researchers were creating RoboBees in anticipation.

More recently, Japanese researchers created a $100 bumblebee drone that’s set to ease the potential coming problems. Scientists equipped this tiny drone with sticky hairs that allow it to carry pollen from flower to flower, just like a bee does.

Should we be comforted that we have products in place to replace bees, or should we be worried? Hopefully the bee’s designation will still become official in March, but in the current political climate, nothing is certain. For what it’s worth, officials emphasize that the delay should not jeopardize the bee’s conservation status. “The change in the effective date from February 10 to March 21, 2017, is not expected to have an impact on the conservation of the species,” Assistant Director of Ecological Services for USFWS Gary Frazer says in a statement. “FWS is developing a recovery plan to guide efforts to bring this species back to a healthy and secure condition.”

Let’s hope that’s true. If Black Mirror taught us anything, it’s that drone bees may not be the best solution.

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