Colony Collapse Disorder (ccd), initially referred to as “mystery disease” when it surfaced at the beginning of the 20th Century, remains mysterious. Here’s what we know: Bee populations around the world are falling to pieces and the implications are cataclysmic. No more honey for your toast, nor pollen for your flowers, which means no more flowers. Or plants. Or food. Or life.
The most convincing theory as to the root cause of CCD is the decades-old use of neonicotinoid insecticides — a class of neuroactive pest killers that are chemically similar to nicotine and were initially developed by Shell Oil as an “environmentally friendly” alternative to traditional pesticides. And while these chemicals have been kinder to the mammalian class, they’ve ravaged the anthophilous.
As the rapid advancement of CCD began to reach feverish levels in June of this year, President Obama created a task force charged with solving the mystery within 180 days. The response from America’s brightest minds was swift and penetrating.
Harvard University scientists have come up with a deceptively simple solution that could also provide a potential boon for the nation’s growing drone industry: Replace the dead bees with micro-aerial vehicles that pollinate on command—robo-bees. It’s a gamble, but in these disruptive times, even nature needs to innovate if it wants to stay relevant.
Like “a mechanical flash mob,” as one journalist put it, the robo-bees are able to efficiently function within a swarm of thousands and self-assemble into a variety of shapes, including letters, numbers and even a five pointed star.
But it’s not just anthophila that are dying en masse. Neonic pesticides have also been linked to a more general decline in insect populations across the map, which has created a schism in nature’s managerial structure — fewer insects means less food for birds, which means fewer birds and so on and so forth.
From an engineering perspective, birds present a more complex challenge. One area where their robotic analogs could be of use is to replace a bird’s traditional function of spreading seeds from the various plant life it consumes. Using dynamic production materials, robo-birds could potentially navigate a variety of complex environs, both man-made and pre-existing. Although, it’s likely that less orderly ecosystems such as forests or wetlands would have to be streamlined for testing purposes.
Just as birds eat insects, other animals eat birds, so the materials used to construct the robo-birds would ultimately have to be quasi-organic in order to fulfill a given species’ role in the broader natural economy. But as we go up the food chain, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a pragmatic and affordable approach.
While birds and bees can be replicated at a relatively low cost, larger animals such as deer or lions require a far more sophisticated redesign given their size and weight.
Developing a broader strategy of species modernization will not be without its share of ethical dilemmas, all of which will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later. For instance, if a given organism, insect, animal or plant cannot prove its long-term value, should it be discontinued altogether? Purely organic versions of said species could be put into storage for reference purposes, but given nature’s delicate balance, redundancies are inevitable.