A STIRLING based scientist and his US collaborator have been jointly awarded a £640,000 grant to create “robot bees”.

These microrobots are to be built to simulate the buzzing of bees, for a project which aims to improve agriculture as well as help advance understanding of the evolution of species of bees and flowers.

Evolutionary biologist Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, of the University of Stirling, will work with electrical engineer Dr. Noah Jafferis, of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, over three years to create these microrobots. 

Twenty-thousand plants, including tomatoes, potatoes and blueberries, depend on buzz pollination. Understanding which bees do it best, and how they do it, the scientists say, could improve agriculture as well as help advance understanding of the evolution of species of bees and flowers.

The “bee robots” are the size of a fingernail and weigh a quarter of a honeybee. They will allow the scientists to control the vibrations’ pitch, force, and timing, and simulate bees’ interactions with flowers. 

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Dr Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor in Biological and Environmental Sciences, said: “There are around 20,000 species of bee in the world, yet we know little about the function of most bee species, as we usually only think about honeybees and bumblebees. 

“Bumblebees can buzz pollinate but honeybees cannot, and we don’t know much about thousands of other bees.

“A bee’s buzz shakes the pollen out of the flower but, until now, the only way to recreate that process has been with a mechanical shaker weighing 2-3 kilos. Our project transforms heavy shakers into tiny robots that more closely resemble a bee buzzing a flower. 

This will help us study how the bee’s characteristics affect the buzz and what types of vibrations are most effective for pollination.”

The award is from the Human Frontier Science Program, which promotes international collaboration for innovative science research. 

Dr Jafferis. had been working at Harvard University's Microrobotics Lab on insect-inspired flying robots when he attended a seminar given by Dr. Vallejo-Marin about buzz pollination, and the pair identified an opportunity to collaborate.

Dr Jafferis, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMass-Lowell, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to bring together fundamental biological research and micro-robotic technology to delve into the inner workings of buzz pollination in a way that hasn’t been feasible before.

“We will also be able to develop novel, bio-inspired designs for grasping, and other complex functional behaviours, along the way.

“These experiments, together with computer simulations, will allow us to build a deeper understanding of which aspects of buzz pollination are most important for pollen release.”

Bee populations worldwide are in decline, but the researchers say their work is not to create robotic substitutes for bees, but to better understand pollination and the diversity of bee species.

“In Australia and Southern Africa, for example, they need buzz pollinating bees for pollinating some fruit crops,” said Dr Vallejo-Marin. 

“But bumblebees are not native there so they can’t be used in agriculture as we use them in Europe, and farmers have resorted to using electric toothbrushes to pollinate tomatoes.

“Understanding buzz pollination better could lead to stronger motivation for conserving the diversity of bees, beyond honeybees and bumblebees, as well as potentially optimising fruit and vegetable yields in agriculture.”