Taking off from Harvard Yard: Flight of the RoboBees

In face of bee collapse, scientists are developing artificial pollinators that some fear could be used by military

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Environmental activist Bill Talen wore his blond hair slicked back, a white priest’s collar poking out from under his black shirt. Gripping his megaphone, he led a choir of activists dressed as honeybees in a shout of “Honeybeelujah!” outside the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Inside, a team of Harvard researchers has been working to develop RoboBees, robotic insects that have multiple purposes — two of which are the focus of angry dissent. First, the tiny robots could be used to artificially pollinate crops at a time when the world’s bee population is facing a dire environmental threat. Second, the man-made bees could have military applications, such as in search and surveillance missions.

“You don’t have to make a RoboBee to replace this life that is dying here. This is misguided science,” said Talen, who stages environmentally conscious and anti-commercial performance art as Reverend Billy.

A protest at Monsanto by Bill Talen's group

“It’s a good day to embarrass yourself! It’s a good day to speak out for the Earth!” he told a group of scientists and students who gathered to listen to him and his Stop Shopping Choir. The group traveled more than 200 miles to sing in protest and lay an offering of fruits and vegetables next to a RoboBee prototype in a display case.  

The RoboBees project, started in 2009, comes at a time when scientists are struggling to pinpoint the cause of the die-off of honeybees in the United States known as colony collapse disorder. Nearly 1 in 4 honeybee colonies died last winter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though 2013 wasn’t quite as bad as the previous eight years — in which an average of 30 percent of honey bees perished annually — the species is still in trouble.

An estimated 35 percent of the world’s crops rely on pollination from creatures like bees, birds and bats to survive, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley.

Christine Johnson, an invertebrate zoologist and collections manager at the American Museum of Natural History, said more than 10 million honeybee hives have died since 2007.

“It’s alarming. Honeybees are social insects, and we do have them in hives, so it’s very apparent that there is this massive die-off, but it’s very possible and there are some recent studies that show even other native pollinators are dying off too, so the honeybees are sort of the canary in the coal mine,” said Johnson.  

Harvard researchers have stressed that pollination by robotic bees is more than 20 years away and would be only a stopgap measure — not a long-term solution — for dealing with colony collapse disorder. But Talen and other environmental activists said they want scientists to do more to protect natural pollinators now.

You don’t have to make a RoboBee to replace this life that is dying here. This is misguided science.

Bill Talen

environmental activist

While numerous studies have been conducted on colony collapse disorder, its exact cause is still unclear. But a new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health this month says that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides appears to play a major role. Neonicotinoid pesticides are legal in the United States but have been banned in the European Union until December 2015 so their impact on honeybees can be further studied.

“Neonicotinoids are used primarily on our agricultural crops and affect the nervous system or neurological systems of insect pests,” Johnson said. “While the honeybee doesn’t necessarily pollinate corn, these pesticides do get spread to other types of plants on which the honeybees do feed. They seem to be affected by this pesticide, and it is reducing their ability to fight off certain infections of other organisms, primarily the Nosema parasite.”

Talen and the other activists also protested outside the Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of Monsanto, which uses neonicotinoid pesticides on some of its seed treatments.

“Monsanto is one of the world’s developers of neonicotinoid pesticides that are devastating our hives, our bees and our ecosystem,” said John Gibbons, a Unitarian Universalist minister who joined the protest. “We think it’s absolutely urgent to get people’s attention on these issues. They are complicated issues, they are overwhelming, and we don’t mean to overly simplify them. But first, we think we need to get people’s attention.”

Representatives from Monsanto did not meet with Gibbons, and the building company called the police — though none of the protesters were arrested.

Monsanto spokesman Billy Brennan wrote in an email to Al Jazeera, “These products have been determined to be safe for their approved, intended uses by the appropriate authorities, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S., for example. Like all pesticide products, neonicotinoid pesticides must be used strictly according to the label directions.”

Talen and other activists have also protested the potential military uses of robotic insects. Harvard’s RoboBees project is led by Robert Wood, a former fellow at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. Wood declined to be interviewed for this article, said Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences spokesman Paul Karoff.

Karoff said the RoboBees project is entirely funded by the National Science Foundation and does not “condone policies or practices that endanger bees.”

“The project receives no funding from [the Department of Defense] or defense-related agencies,” Karoff wrote in an email. “We can’t speak to who may be interested in this line of research.”

The project receives no funding from [the Department of Defense] or defense-related agencies. [But] we can’t speak to who may be interested in this line of research.

Paul Karoff

Harvard spokesman

A press release linked to Harvard’s RoboBees site shows that at least one defense contracting firm is interested. BAE Systems signed a $38 million agreement with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in 2008 “to build insect-sized robots for government spying operations.”

BAE Systems previously funded Wood’s research. It did not return requests for comment for this article.

Talen said he and his choir will continue to raise awareness about the plight of the honeybee.

“Just think about what you are doing — that’s our message. You’re making a robot to replace a magical animal that is dying, and the people who are causing the death of that animal are going to receive the intelligence you are developing in your laboratory,” he added.

Johnson said she hopes that the focus will remain on saving natural honeybees.

“The robotic aspect is always very interesting, and there’s always a use for something like this. However, I think people are finding that it is more important to really provide green corridors to keep these native pollinators going. It doesn’t take that much effort to do a great deal and turn around what has happened,” said Johnson.

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