Friday, March 24, 2017

Float like a drone, pollinate like a bee

I suspect that one of the things that allows us to turn a blind eye to all sorts of environmental depredations, whether all-natural or man-made, is the belief that technology will bail us out.

Ocean level rise? We’ll put gates at the mouth of Boston harbor?

Wind power. Solar. Scrubbers. We’ll figure things out.

Sorry about the fact the wooly mammoths no longer roam? Let’s find some frozen DNA and make us some new ones. Hell, maybe we can even shrink them down and make them household pets. No more endangered species! No more extinct, as long as we can find a viable frozen specimen.

This belief in technology isn’t all that unfounded. Technology solves a lot of problems. A man, a plan, a canal, panama and all that.

One of the environmental problems that’s gotten a lot of publicity over the past couple of years – even if the problem has apparently been a bit exaggerated – was the collapse of bee colonies, a situation that was supposed to wreak havoc with all those parts of the food supply that rely on pollination. Stuff like almonds, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, clover, eggplant, squash, and watermelon. Oh, turnip depends on pollination, too, but, frankly, the end of turnip would be no great loss as far as I’m concerned. (With apologies to my cousins Babs and MB, the only people I know who actually like turnip. There weren’t many foods that my parents gave us a pass on growing up. If creamed corn was put on your plate, you ate it, dammit, even if it did taste like vomit. But, for some reason, the Rogers kids were allowed to omit turnip from our plates. We even had a chant for it: turn up your nose at turnip. My father must have hated turnip. The chant sure sounds like him.)

Anyway, while the demise of the pollinating bee colonies may have been greatly overblown, just in case it does happen, there’s a technical solution on the horizon.

That’s thanks to Japanese scientist Eijiro Miyako

Miyako has invented an adhesive gel that collects flowers’ pollen grains and deposits them on other flowers upon contact. His goal is to offer farmers a tool to complement, not replace, bees and other natural pollinators. (Source: Bloomberg)

There are some decidedly low-tech aspects to his work. “The gel is applied to a small patch of horsehair.”

I know that horsehair is (still) used for bow strings and paintbrushes, but there’s something so quaint about the idea of horsehair. It brings up thoughts of horsehair plaster (defunct in this era of sheetrock, no?). And horsehair mattresses. (I had a friend in high school whose ancient family house at the Cape actually had horsehair mattresses – blue leather stuffed with horsehair. It was like sleeping on a bolder.) Not to mention hairshirts (which, creepily, you can buy online).

But Miyako’s innovation is mostly techie. It is, after all, a drone. Bee drone

Miyako pilots the drone from flower to flower, rubbing the horsehair against pistils and stamens. Like the adhesive in a Post-It note, the gel is tacky but not sticky, so it releases some of the pollen grains on contact.

No word on drone safety, but so far the gel has passed do-no-harm experiments on mouse cells, and it “could be tweaked to be made biodegradable.”

To his wife’s chagrin, Miyako paid for the drones himself. Last year he received a $32,000 grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to further develop them.

To which I say, thank you Miyako-San.

I will sleep better tonight, knowing that if the bee colonies actually do collapse, I’ll still be in clover, cherries, and watermelon.

Yay, technology!

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