For decades we’ve been planting genetically-engineered crops and dumping pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides on every available inch of land. It was all fine and good until weird stuff started happening — stuff like skyrocketing chronic illness, dead zones in the ocean and entire colonies of bees dropping dead for no apparent reason.
No matter what the cause (and it’s likely a combination of causes), Colony Collapse Disorder is a big problem for us humans. See, we’ve been relying on bees to do something we can’t: pollinate plants and flowers. If bees disappear, our food supply will suffer drastic consequences. Many of the foods we take for granted will be impossible to cultivate.
That’s why so many people are concerned about saving the bees. It’s not just another feel-good tagline for environmentalists; it’s something we need to do quickly if we want our kids to experience fresh apples, almonds, watermelons and more.
While the fight to eliminate GMOs and agro-chemicals wages on, some clever engineers, inventors and citizen scientists are working on their own solutions. Here are just a few you should know about:
1. 3D-Printed Smart Beehives
There was a time when, if you wanted a better version of a product, you had to wait for a company to make it. Not any more. Now, when the world wants to tackle a problem, they crowdsource the solution.
The Open Source Beehives project is working to design hives that will support bee colonies in a sustainable way, as well as monitor and track the health and behavior of a colony as it develops. “Each hive contains an open source sensory kit, The Smart Citizen Kit (SCK), which can transmit to an open data platform: Smartcitizen.me. These sensor enhanced hive designs are open and freely available online, the data collected from each hive is published together with geolocations allowing for a further comparison and analysis of the hives,” reports the project.
2. Bee Sperm Bank
Entomologists in Washington have started the world’s first bee sperm bank. The research team is collecting semen samples from male bees found all over the world. Then the samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen, where they can stay vital for decades. ”Poor nutrition, pesticides, and parasites all play a role [in CCD],” Susan Cobey, one of the founders of the bee sperm bank project, told ABC. By increasing the genetic diversity of bees, beekeepers can selectively breed for traits to better prepare them against CCD.
Despite widespread colony collapse and warnings that pollinator levels are falling dangerously low, there is currently no systematic nationwide effort to document pollinator status in North America. So, once again, citizens are helping scientists do what the government will not. Some researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created BeeSpotter, an online platform that allows regular people to assist scientists in collecting important bee data. BeeSpotter also helps to increase public awareness of pollinator diversity and enhance public appreciation of pollination as an ecosystem service. “The use of photography for identification, instead of the net, pin, and spreading board of traditional entomology, is consistent with the goal of preserving bee diversity and enhancing pollinator appreciation,” reports Scientific American.
4. Solar Farms
Sure, solar panels are a great way to generate energy without burning fossil fuels, but that’s not all they can do. Solar farms, large tracts of land set aside as solar “power plants,” can do wonders for pollinators like bees and butterflies. Solarcentury and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) recently partnered to turn solar farms into wildlife sanctuaries specifically designed to attract pollinators. ”Whenever we develop a solar park, we plant acres of wildflower meadows with native seed mixes that are specifically designed to attract a diversity of wildlife. Our solar parks are fenced off, and frequently situated in remote areas, which creates a safe haven for wildlife. So in addition to generating clean, carbon-free energy, our solar parks are also helping to reinvigorate the much-loved British bumblebee,” explained Frans van den Heuvel, CEO of Solarcentury in a press release.
Admittedly, this technology doesn’t save the bees so much as it could replace then. Still, at a time when we’re seeing millions of bees die-off at once, we’ve got to be realistic about potential alternatives. “Researchers at Harvard are working on a partial solution — tiny drones the size of bees (not to be confused with drone bees, the mostly useless males of a bee colony),” reports Popular Science. The tiny flying robots have flapping wings, as well as the ability to hover, an essential function for the spread of pollen.