Without bees, the wingmen of the plant world, much of the food we eat would be a lot harder to come by – so their worldwide decline is cause for alarm. While some scientists are fighting to study and save the bees, a team from Japan has found a way to give them a little high-tech help, in the form of tiny pollen-collecting drones covered in a sticky gel and animal hairs.

The research began with a bottle of gel cast aside after a failed experiment in 2007. Sitting forgotten in a cupboard in the lab for all this time, it was found in a surprisingly good condition during a cleanup. Being super sticky, the team thought the gel might be useful as a kind of pollen glue.

"This project is the result of serendipity," says Eijiro Miyako, senior author of the study. "We were surprised that after eight years, the ionic gel didn't degrade and was still so viscous. Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can't be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research."

To test the gel's prowess at picking up pollen, the researchers put droplets of it onto the backs of ants, and had them wander around in a box full of tulips. Unsurprisingly, the ants with the gel gathered much more pollen than those that enjoyed an unencumbered trip through the tulips.

With a small, inexpensive store-bought drone in hand, the next step was to test whether it could be slathered with the gel and used as a kind of robo-bee. In nature, bees are covered with scopa, tiny branching hairs that hold grains of pollen, and in an attempt to mimic that, the team gave the drone a horse hair wig. That gives the pollen more surface area to cling to, and creates a touch of static electricity to keep it there.

And it worked. With a combination of the hair and gel, the team flew the drones from flower to flower, in this case Japanese lilies, and found that they were effective artificial pollinators. A control group, which made the same trip without a cargo of gelled hair, were unsurprisingly useless at pollination.

"The findings, which will have applications for agriculture and robotics, among others, could lead to the development of artificial pollinators and help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations," says Miyako. "We believe that robotic pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence."

Such future pollinating drones could also be fitted with other bee-inspired sensing systems, like those that mimic the eyes, brains and navigational senses of the insects, to help build an autonomous, robotic work force to take some of the pressure off nature's busy bees. Tests on live houseflies also found that the gel works well as a camouflage as it changes color in response to different sources of light, which could keep predators at bay.

The research was published in the journal Chem.

Source: National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology via Science Daily