Years and years ago, artist Bob Ross stood in front of a camera for PBS and encouraged people to get out there and paint some happy little trees. With his brush whispering across his canvas, dabbing a little color here, a little bit there, he brought entire forests to life on a two-dimensional plane.
Plants—especially flowers—probably won’t cease to be popular subjects for painters, partly because they draw the eye with their vivid colors, mostly because they don’t fidget or move while the artist studies them. In the last several years, though, agriculture has turned the idea of bringing flowers to life by painting them into a literal one.
Plants with flowers are the ones that produce fruit, which they do through the process of pollination. Flowers have male and female parts; the male parts produce pollen, the female parts receive pollen and use it to produce seeds and fruits, and humans of all genders stand by with packets of Zyrtec and Benadryl while the process happens.
Many flowering plants depend on insects like bees for pollination. Bees stick their heads into flowers to get at the pollen and the nectar they like to eat. But just as I always sometimes end up with crumbs on my shirt after a meal, the bees end up with excess pollen dusted onto their bodies. This pollen rubs off onto the female parts of the same or other flowers, and lo, fertilization occurs.
Over the last several years, however, it’s been widely reported that bee populations aren’t healthy, and entire hives are dying at once in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. The use of several pesticides is considered the factor mostly likely to cause CCD, though cold winter weather may exacerbate their effects.
Agriculture depends on pollination. As bees continued to die, the question became, while we’re trying to figure out how to stabilize bee populations, what can we do to keep our crops growing?
One answer came in the form of the human touch. In apple orchards in China and elsewhere, human workers applied pollen to the female parts of apple blossoms by brushing it on with paintbrushes. The technique of hand pollination, in use for centuries (though with variations—for example, sometimes the male parts are trimmed from one squash flower and brushed directly against the female flower of another, hubba hubba), became especially important to large-scale agriculture.
But human workers can’t cover the same amount of ground—or branch—that bees can. So researchers began exploring new pollination techniques to meet the demands for food placed on the worlds farmers and growers. And in a page straight out of the great science fiction stories (or other depictions of life in the future), some have proposed a new answer in the form of robots.
The Harvard Microrobotics Lab has developed what it calls Robobees, mechanical creations that look like elaborate paper clips with wings. The team at Harvard Microrobotics hopes to fit each Robobee with sensors and program it to fly among the flowers in a field. It has even proposed creating a hive to serve as a refueling station for each Robobee colony.
Of course, the feasibility of having an army of what are essentially tiny drones fly autonomously through a field still needs assessing, as does the legality of it, because hey, these are essentially tiny drones. But we continue to see if technology can sustain human society, in this case, by seeing what it can do to help flowers produce fruit and make sure the happy little trees stay happy.