Agriculture: How Tech Innovations are Rescuing Bees and Ensuring Pollination Success

Farmers Turn to Tech as Bees Struggle to Pollinate

In the scorching morning heat, Thai Sade brushes the avocado trees he will soon artificially pollinate. Based on a moshav, or collective farm, in central Israel, Mr. Sade is the founder of tech firm BloomX. He says that the company has found a way to mechanically pollinate crops in a similar way to bees.

“We are not replacing bees… but rather, offering more efficient pollinating methods to farmers, and reducing the dependence on commercial honeybees,” he says.

Three out of every four crops grown around the world to produce fruits or seeds for human consumption are reliant, at least in part, on pollinators. And it is bees, be they farmed honeybees, or the more than 20,000 different wild bee species, such as bumble bees, that do the heavy lifting. In the US, bees of all sorts are said to account for 75% of the pollination of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the country. It is a similar percentage in Europe, with other insects, such as wasps and butterflies, making up the remaining quarter.

Unfortunately for farmers, bee populations are under pressure, due to factors such as climate change, habitat loss, and the use of pesticides. The European honeybee is also being badly affected by a parasitic mite called varroa destructor.

BloomX’s technology is currently aimed at two crops – blueberries and avocados – and allows them to be pollinated even if local bee numbers are very low.

The firm’s main product is called “Robee”, which at first glance looks like a large push-along lawnmower. It has two mechanical arms that stick out on either side. These vibrate, and when brushed over blueberry plants, they cause them to release their pollen. The level of vibration is said to have been designed to imitate that of bumble bees – the most effective pollinators of blueberries – which use their wings to agitate the flowers. BloomX’s other product is “Crossbee”, a handheld tool for collecting and spreading sticky pollen grains between avocado trees. To date, the equipment is being used in South America, South Africa, Spain, the US, and Israel, and BloomX says it can increase fruit yields by 30%.

Both products are controlled by an AI-based software system linked to a mobile phone app, and each is fitted with a GPS tool so that farm workers know which areas of a field have been treated. Sensors can also be put in place so that the pollination takes place on the optimum days.

In California, the cultivation of almonds is a huge business. The state produces 80% of the world’s almonds, and the industry is worth an estimated $10.4bn (£8.3bn) a year. To fertilize the total 1.3 million acres of these trees, honeybees are trucked to California from across the US for the almond flowering season. Some reports say that 70% of commercial US honeybees are taken to the state for this purpose.

Lisa Wasko DeVetter, an associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University, says that this can mean a shortage of honeybees elsewhere in the US for other crops. Artificial pollination may be able to help fill this gap.

“Travel can stress honey bees and weaken colonies, but the business of pollinating almonds is hugely important for beekeeper income, and keeping their operations economically viable,” she says.

“However, the impact on other crops is that honey bees may be in short supply if other crops have bloomed at a time that coincides with the California almond industry.”

Other commentators point to the high mortality rate of honeybees in the almond fields, with beekeepers blaming exposure to pesticides and the stress of their…