Beyond robo-bees: can technology really help halt the biodiversity crisis? – Investigate Europe
“The apple trees were coming into bloom, but no bees droned among the blossoms,” wrote Rachel Carson, 60 years ago, in the opening chapter of Silent Spring. She imagined a future town with no birds, no insects, no flowers, just illness and death. The reason? All around life has been poisoned by pesticides. But what if, instead of bees droning, were in their place hundreds of drones droning – using artificial intelligence to do the work of pollinating the apple trees?
The celebrated US conservationist and author’s premonition of pesticide-fuelled climate breakdown where pollinators no longer roam is getting ever closer. Can technology offer a solution to our growing biodiversity crisis?
Every so often a headline will shout about the coming of the robo-bees, with the vision of a dystopian future where drones, not insects, ‘buzz’ from flower-to-flower. In 2018 the University of West Virginia in the US developed the BrambleBee, which pollinates plants using a robotic arm. Israeli tech company Arugga claims to be the first company to commercialise a robot able to replicate buzz pollination in tomato greenhouses. ‘Polly’, which isn’t at all bee-like in appearance, has been set to work in Finland, where the long dark winter days make it hard for bees to pollinate crops and so they need supplementing with manual pollination. The robot will now do the hard labour and it also collects plant health data, allowing farmers to make informed decisions about treatment.
A more recent example can be found in a joint venture between the University of Stirling in Scotland, and the University of Massachusetts. They have received funding to build tiny robots that can reproduce the buzz of pollinating bees. Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, told Investigate Europe that the aim of the project is not to replace natural pollinators. “We’re not looking for a mechanical way to replace what thousands of bee species around the world do.” Rather, he says, the goal is “to understand why it is important to conserve different types of bees.”
Bee conservation is a growing concern. Almost three-quarters of the world’s most essential food crops are pollinated by bees, according to the UN, but numbers are falling as industrial agriculture expands and rampant pesticide use persists. European beekeepers have warned that colony numbers have declined over the last 15 years, while experts have estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species face extinction in Europe.
Dave Goulson, Biology Professor at the University of Sussex, agrees with Vallejo-Martian that robo-bees can never been a replacement for the real thing. “Real bees are very good at pollinating, and they have been doing it for 120 million years,” he says. “So why on earth do we think we can do better by building little robots? It is nuts. But people are taking that seriously as an option.”
All plants that are not crops would not be robo-pollinated, he adds, while the biggest thing that insects do is actually not pollination, but recycling. They recycle any kind of dead material, something which, Goulson says, a robo-bee would not.
Trillions of robo-bees would be needed to replace all natural pollinators, according to Alan Dorin of Monash University in Australia, a process he describes as unrealistic and economically impossible for most farmers. Robo-bees are environmentally damaging to create and dispose of, Dorin says, and they can pose serious risks to wildlife.
Assisting not replacing
Robo-bees may not be buzzing around our fields any time soon, but with the global agricultural robotics market expected to be worth $20 billion by 2025, technology-assisted farming that aids the environment is set to take off.
The UK-based Small Robot Company (SRC) hopes that farmers will use AI and robotics to work with the environment and make food production more sustainable. They hope to replace heavy tractors with the more environmentally friendly lightweight robots and help farmers reduce costs and inputs such as herbicides and fertilisers.
They currently have three robot models – Tom, Dick and Harry – that monitor, treat and plant crops autonomously. Tom, for example, scans the field to create a map of where plants are and what each one needs. This data is fed to an AI advice model that creates a treatment map advising farmers on what action to take.
SRC says herbicide applications can be cut nearly 80 per cent with the technology and it is set to roll out the products to 50 UK farms later this year. A 2019 crowdfunding campaign secured £1m, much of which, the company says, came from farmers, and support for the technology appears to be growing. Tom Jewers was attracted by the prospect of reducing chemicals on his farm in Suffolk. “The ability to treat only the plants that actually need it is game-changing,” he told Farmers Weekly.
Amid rising global prices, the motivations for farmers in the UK – and across Europe – to reduce chemical use is economical as well as environmental. “With the increasing cost of inputs, farmers and growers are keen to reduce their reliance on a range of products, including pesticides,” Dr Dawn Teverson from industry-affiliated group Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) told IE by email.
Experiments into farming techniques is a centuries-old tradition. It was in 1843 at Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agriculture research institutes in the world, that the first wheat seeds were planted in Broadbalk field in Hertfordshire, England. These seeds were to become the classical Rothamsted long-term experiments, laying the foundations of modern scientific agriculture and establishing the principles of crop nutrition.
Broadbalk has been under continuous scientific study ever since and helps scientists understand how fertilisers can improve crop yield. This is just one of the ways science is being used to improve food production. Rothamsted’s Plant Pathologist Dr Kevin King is working to develop advance warning systems to farmers for fungal pathogens and help prevent “wasteful spraying with fungicides”.
Fungal pathogens can wreak havoc on crops. King and his colleagues are developing an air monitoring device to measure the amount of spores in the air. This will help them understand how the pathogen behaves, and so how best to manage and control it. They relay this information to farmers with “the idea being that if a farmer or grower can know what exactly is happening in their field at any given time,” King says. “Then they can take preventative measures to try and manage the disease.”
The Rothamsted estate is scattered with various insect traps, part of the Insect Survey overseen by Dr James Bell. The work his team does now has its origins in a survey started in 1964. They use two types of traps, one at 12.2 metres to take the landscape view of insects flying at that height and the shorter traps that give a more granular view of behaviour. As with the fungal spores research, these traps are used to predict threats from insect pests and produce bulletins for farmers. Even from their origins in the spray-happy 1960s, they were set up to reduce the use of insecticides.
“We believed in 1964 that if we communicated with farmers, we could actually change their behaviour, and that’s just what we do today with forecasts and data,” Bell says.
But changing behaviour isn’t going to be easy. Investigate Europe’s latest investigation laid bare Europe’s pesticide problem and the resistance among farmers, industry and some politicians to support laws on pesticide reductions and data collection. Meanwhile, the charity Food Watch recently described a self-reinforcing cycle of pesticide use that is creating fragile agricultural production systems where farmers are increasingly dependent on chemicals.
It is not only the diversity of plants, insects and birds that is threatened by today’s agricultural system. So are farmers themselves, argue critics.
“We see less and less farmers. They have less and less profits,” Green MEP Bas Eickhout recently said. “We see that our rural areas are under threat. On top of that, we see the impact of climate change affecting our farmers. We see the loss of biodiversity.”
It is likely technology does have a role to play in helping farmers escape this cycle, but it’s a small part of a bigger need for a system change and not a replacement for what nature is currently doing and has been doing for millions of years. For free.
Meet the Canadian astronauts up for a seat on the Artemis II mission to the moon – iHeartRadio.ca
This Sunday, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will announce the four astronauts that will be blasting off to fly around the moon for the Artemis II mission, one of whom will be a Canadian astronaut.
The Artemis II mission will be the first crewed mission to orbit the moon in half a century, and the inclusion of a Canadian astronaut on the mission will make Canada the second country to have an astronaut fly around the moon.
In November 2024, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida will launch the four astronauts into space for the Artemis II mission. They will pilot the Orion spacecraft around the Earth and then around the moon before returning home.
It’s the second step of a project that started last year with the unmanned Artemis I mission. The Artemis missions help to test the launch system and the spacecraft itself. The end goal is for scientists to construct a Lunar Gateway at the moon — a space station that could serve as a jumping off point for further deep space exploration.
A trailer for the crew announcement was posted by NASA on Wednesday.
There are currently four active Canadian astronauts, but we won’t know until Sunday who will be the first Canadian astronaut to fly around the moon.
Kutryk was born in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta and grew up on a cattle farm in eastern Alberta. He is a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, and has been deployed in Libya and Afghanistan in the past.
He worked as an experimental test pilot and fighter pilot in Cold Lake, Alberta before he was recruited by the CSA. He worked on numerous test flight projects as well as on improving the safety of fighter jets such as the CF-18.
Kutryk made it to the top 16 candidates for the CSA in 2009, but wasn’t selected until CSA’s 2017 recruitment campaign.
He obtained the official title of astronaut in January 2020.
Sidey-Gibbons comes from Calgary, Alberta, and first worked with the CSA while studying mechanical engineering at McGill University, where she conducted research on flame propagation in microgravity in collaboration with the agency.
Before joining CSA, she lived and worked in the U.K. as an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge. Her research there focused on how to develop low-emission combusted for gas turbine engines.
She was selected by the CSA in 2017 as a recruit along with Kutryk, and obtained the official title of astronaut in January 2020.
Hansen was born in London, Ontario and spent his childhood first on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario, and then Ingersoll, Ontario. He is married with three children.
By age 17, he had already obtained glider and private pilot licences through the Air Cadet Program. He is a member of the Canadian Armed Forces and served as a CF-18 fighter pilot before becoming an astronaut.
Hansen graduated as an astronaut in 2011, after being selected as one of two recruits for the CSA in 2009. He currently represents the CSA at NASA and works at the Mission Control Center, serving as the point of connection between the ground and the International Space Station (ISS). He also helps to train astronauts at NASA, the first Canadian to do so.
Saint-Jacques grew up in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, near Montreal, and is married with three children.
Before joining the CSA, he worked as a medical doctor in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, an Inuit community in northern Quebec. He also works as an adjunct professor of family medicine at McGill University. As a biomedical engineer, he has worked in France and Hungary, and helped to develop optics systems for telescopes and arrays used at observatories in Japan, Hawaii and the Canary Islands.
He was selected as a recruit in 2009 by the CSA and graduated in 2011 from the NASA astronaut program. He has since worked with the Robotics Branch of the NASA Astronaut Office, as a support astronaut for various ISS missions and as the mission control radio operator for a number of resupply missions for the ISS.
In December 2018, Saint-Jacques flew to the ISS to complete a 204-day mission, which is the longest mission any Canadian astronaut has carried out in space to date. During this time, he became the fourth CSA astronaut to conduct a spacewalk and the first CSA astronaut to catch a visiting spacecraft using the Canadarm2.
Stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be detected from more than a meter away
What does a stressed plant sound like? A bit like bubble-wrap being popped. Researchers in Israel report in the journal Cell on March 30 that tomato and tobacco plants that are stressed—from dehydration or having their stems severed—emit sounds that are comparable in volume to normal human conversation. The frequency of these noises is too high for our ears to detect, but they can probably be heard by insects, other mammals, and possibly other plants.
“Even in a quiet field, there are actually sounds that we don’t hear, and those sounds carry information,” says senior author Lilach Hadany, an evolutionary biologist and theoretician at Tel Aviv University. “There are animals that can hear these sounds, so there is the possibility that a lot of acoustic interaction is occurring.”
Although ultrasonic vibrations have been recorded from plants before, this is the first evidence that they are airborne, a fact that makes them more relevant for other organisms in the environment. “Plants interact with insects and other animals all the time, and many of these organisms use sound for communication, so it would be very suboptimal for plants to not use sound at all,” says Hadany.
The researchers used microphones to record healthy and stressed tomato and tobacco plants, first in a soundproofed acoustic chamber and then in a noisier greenhouse environment. They stressed the plants via two methods: by not watering them for several days and by cutting their stems. After recording the plants, the researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm to differentiate between unstressed plants, thirsty plants, and cut plants.
The team found that stressed plants emit more sounds than unstressed plants. The plant sounds resemble pops or clicks, and a single stressed plant emits around 30–50 of these clicks per hour at seemingly random intervals, but unstressed plants emit far fewer sounds. “When tomatoes are not stressed at all, they are very quiet,” says Hadany.
Water-stressed plants began emitting noises before they were visibly dehydrated, and the frequency of sounds peaked after five days with no water before decreasing again as the plants dried up completely. The types of sound emitted differed with the cause of stress. The machine-learning algorithm was able to accurately differentiate between dehydration and stress from cutting and could also discern whether the sounds came from a tomato or tobacco plant.
Although the study focused on tomato and tobacco plants because of their ease to grow and standardize in the laboratory, the research team also recorded a variety of other plant species. “We found that many plants—corn, wheat, grape, and cactus plants, for example—emit sounds when they are stressed,” says Hadany.
The exact mechanism behind these noises is unclear, but the researchers suggest that it might be due to the formation and bursting of air bubbles in the plant’s vascular system, a process called cavitation.
Whether or not the plants are producing these sounds in order to communicate with other organisms is also unclear, but the fact that these sounds exist has big ecological and evolutionary implications. “It’s possible that other organisms could have evolved to hear and respond to these sounds,” says Hadany. “For example, a moth that intends to lay eggs on a plant or an animal that intends to eat a plant could use the sounds to help guide their decision.”
Other plants could also be listening in and benefiting from the sounds. We know from previous research that plants can respond to sounds and vibrations: Hadany and several other members of the team previously showed that plants increase the concentration of sugar in their nectar when they “hear” the sounds made by pollinators, and other studies have shown that plants change their gene expression in response to sounds. “If other plants have information about stress before it actually occurs, they could prepare,” says Hadany.
Sound recordings of plants could be used in agricultural irrigation systems to monitor crop hydration status and help distribute water more efficiently, the authors say.
“We know that there’s a lot of ultrasound out there—every time you use a microphone, you find that a lot of stuff produces sounds that we humans cannot hear—but the fact that plants are making these sounds opens a whole new avenue of opportunities for communication, eavesdropping, and exploitation of these sounds,” says co-senior author Yossi Yovel, a neuro-ecologist at Tel Aviv University.
“So now that we know that plants do emit sounds, the next question is—’who might be listening?'” says Hadany. “We are currently investigating the responses of other organisms, both animals and plants, to these sounds, and we’re also exploring our ability to identify and interpret the sounds in completely natural environments.”
Lilach Hadany, Sounds emitted by plants under stress are airborne and informative, Cell (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2023.03.009. www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(23)00262-3
Stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be detected from more than a meter away (2023, March 30)
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After sunset, see the 5 planets in the sky or via video
How to see 5 planets
This week (late March 2023), you can see five planets lined up in our evening sky: Venus and Uranus, Jupiter and Mercury and Mars. Gianluca Massi of the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome, Italy, showed them through a telescope earlier today (March 29). To enjoy his presentation, watch the video below. In addition, you can see them in the sky, perhaps, if your sky conditions are very good, and you have a sharp eye.
As soon as the sun sets, the planets are positioned in a gentle arc across the evening sky, following the sun’s path across our sky. Likewise, the Moon and the planets also follow the eclipse.
How can we see the planets? Go out around sunset and look west. Among them you can easily spot the bright planet Venus.
Then use binoculars to scan the planet Uranus next to Venus.
Then aim your binoculars low in the sky, near the point where the sun is setting. That is where you will find Jupiter and Mercury.
Then look high in the sky — still see the eclipse or the path of the Sun — to Mars.
Guide to Planetary Viewing
Venus and Uranus. Of these five planets, Venus is the brightest and Uranus is the dim. These two are close together in the sky. Venus is easily visible to the eye. It is the first “star” (actually, planet) to come into view. Uranus shines at +5.8 magnitudes. This is theoretically obvious. But, in practice, you need a dark sky and a telescope to find it. It was roughly 1.5 degrees or three moon widths from Venus earlier this week. Uranus will be closest to Venus on Thursday, March 30.
Thursday and Wednesday. Jupiter is the 2nd brightest planet. But it is now near sunset and visible only in bright twilight. Bright twilight skies make Jupiter more difficult to find. But Jupiter is still visible to the naked eye very close to sunset. And Wednesday? It is fainter than Jupiter (though still brighter than most stars). But it is near sunset. Shortly after sunset, start looking for the pair on the western horizon. You need clear skies and an unobstructed western view to catch them. A telescope should help. They disappear only 30 minutes after sunset. So, when the sun sets, the clock chimes.
tuesday, now the 5th planet in the evening sky, was easy to spot earlier this week because it’s not far from the Moon in our sky’s dome. A bright red light near the moon on Tuesday evening, March 28, 2023. Mars is bright. It is brighter than most stars. And it is clearly red. Even after the sun goes away, you can still spot Mars by its color and by the fact that it doesn’t shine like stars.
Some inventor charts
Bottom line: You have a chance to see five planets tonight and throughout this week. Here are illustrations and information, including where to look in the video.
For more celestial events, visit EarthSky’s Night Sky Guide.
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