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As bee populations decline, can technology help fill the gap?

Humans rely heavily on pollinator bees to sustain food production globally. But for decades, the insects' population has declined, in part because of pesticide use. If the die-off continues, it will have huge economic and public health consequences for people. William Brangham reports on groups that are working on innovative ways to save the world’s jeopardized bee population -- or supplement it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Humans rely heavily on pollinator bees to sustain food production globally, but, for decades, these insects have seen significant population decline.

    The problem is not new, but now there are groups working on innovative ways to tackle the issue of dying bees.

    William Brangham reports for our Breakthroughs series on the Leading Edge of science and technology.

  • Kristy Allen:

    Get Zen about it, and don't freak out.

  • William Brangham:

    Kristy Allen's business is bees.

  • Kristy Allen:

    They go out and they collect nectar.

  • William Brangham:

    This small business owner manages 150 hives in and around Minneapolis. She produces honey, she teaches beekeeping, and she even invented this pedal-powered honey extractor.

  • Kristy Allen:

    I fell in love with the honeybee. They're just incredible. They're a woman-run organization.

  • Kristy Allen:

    We have more of these cells, which is not a good sign.

  • William Brangham:

    But here in Minnesota and around the world, there's a problem: Bees are dying off. Last year alone, beekeepers in the U.S. reported a 40 percent drop-off among their bees.

  • Kristy Allen:

    Bees are struggling these days. And, as a beekeeper, I see it through the eyes of a honeybee, and it being really difficult to keep them healthy and thriving.

  • Dr. Marla Spivak:

    Here's some honey.

  • William Brangham:

    Across the river, at the University of Minnesota's Bee Lab, Dr. Marla Spivak, who's studied bees for over thirty years, says this decline boils down to three things.

  • Dr. Marla Spivak:

    The pesticides, the parasites, and the poor nutrition. Humans love to meddle and love to grow different things. And like these plants here and these plants not here, we want to spray this herbicide to keep these plants here and these plants not here.

    And so all of that affects what's available to bees to support their nutrition.

  • William Brangham:

    Spivak, who received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship for her work with bees, says the die-off started with the dramatic rise in the use of pesticides after World War II.

  • Man:

    The greatest potentiality of DDT lies in dispersal from planes.

  • William Brangham:

    And it's a problem that continues to worsen today. Just this month, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of sulfoxaflor, a pesticide that's toxic to bees.

  • Kristy Allen:

    There's something going on with the other queen, that they don't like her.

  • William Brangham:

    Kristy Allen worries that the declining bee population is going to hurt more than just her business. Globally, three out of every four crops rely on bees for pollination.

  • Kristy Allen:

    Our food will get way more expensive. The people who have money are going to be the ones that have access to things like really good fruits and vegetables that keep us healthy. So, not only is it a huge public health concern. There's huge economic ramifications.

  • William Brangham:

    The Central Valley of California is where more than half the produce in America is grown. Every spring, more than 60 percent of the commercial bees in the country are put onto semitrucks and carted thousands of miles out here.

    The hives are then placed at the edge of fields to help pollinate the flowering crops. It takes about two hives per acre. When bees move from flower to flower searching for nectar, pollen collects on their back legs. You can see the orange clumps on this guy.

    As they travel, they spread that pollen around, fertilizing the plants. But, with bees in decline, as demand for them is rising, some see a business opportunity.

  • Man:

    These are carbon fiber blades, very sharp, very stiff.

  • William Brangham:

    A company called Dropcopter is trying to create a technological fix for farmers who can't get enough bees.

    Co-founder Matt Koball says his business partner had started looking into drones for food delivery, but then they had another idea.

  • Matt Koball :

    I'm out in the field with a friend of mine who grows almonds. And we're talking about bees and pollination. So one thing led to another, went down and visited the engineers that were making his device, and we switched it over to make it so it carries pollen.

  • William Brangham:

    Their mechanical flying pollinator, still in its infancy, is simple in concept. Pollen is poured into a container attached to the bottom of the drone.

  • Man:

    Three, two, one.

  • William Brangham:

    The drone is preprogrammed to follow an exact pathway above an orchard, shooting out the pollen in an even, regular spray as it flies.

  • Matt Koball :

    It'll just come, slide to the left, and head backwards up the hill.

  • William Brangham:

    They demonstrated their drone for us over these fig trees, which don't actually need pollination. But, this year, the company did real pollination on almond, apple, cherry and pear orchards in California and New York.

    Chief marketing officer Mike Winch says they're not here to replace bees.

  • Mike Winch:

    We feel really strongly that it's a supplement to the bees. We can help provide a solution that doesn't provide further stress to the bee colonies, that enhances these food production capabilities for which they're responsible.

  • Kevin Hebrew:

    I believe last year, they were anywhere from $200 to $225 a hive.

  • William Brangham:

    Two-twenty-five per hive?

  • Kevin Hebrew:

    Per hive.

  • William Brangham:

    Almond farmer Kevin Hebrew was one of Dropcopter's first clients.

  • Kevin Hebrew:

    It's uniform. And what I like about it is, it's hard to judge your bee activity. With the drone, you have a lot more opportunity.

  • Woman:

    Three, two, one, go.

  • William Brangham:

    DR. Farrell Helbling is part of a team at Harvard University's Wyss Institute designing a miniature autonomous flying vehicle. They call theirs the Robobee.

  • Dr. Elizabeth Farrell Helbling:

    Down at this scale, we kind of take inspiration from insects and trying to get this flapping motion that you can see.

  • William Brangham:

    It's an amazing amount of engineering on something at that scale.

  • Dr. Elizabeth Farrell Helbling:

    It's incredible. And, you know, everything we do here, we have to come up with how we're going to build it, how we're going to manufacture it, how we're going to, you know, laser-cut all of our materials.

  • William Brangham:

    The goal is to create a small flying robot that mimics what a bee or a fly does. Helbling says, if they can get the technology right, they could be used for anything from search-and-rescue, to medicine, to monitoring air quality, maybe even pollination.

  • Dr. Elizabeth Farrell Helbling:

    You can make many of them for not that much money. The material cost of these is actually very, very low. So, you can outfit these vehicles with like different sensors or different capabilities. And so you can have a swarm of them interacting with the environment.

  • William Brangham:

    Of course, the idea of autonomous flying robots is the stuff of science fiction.

  • Actress:

    We think one of your ADI's may be involved in an unexplained death.

  • Actor:

    Sorry? A death?

  • Actress:

    Uh-huh.

  • William Brangham:

    In the Netflix series "Black Mirror," tiny robot bees are corrupted for a more sinister use.

    Where are you doing that work? Is that over there with the killer bees in that room?

  • Dr. Elizabeth Farrell Helbling:

    No.

  • William Brangham:

    No?

  • Dr. Elizabeth Farrell Helbling:

    No, no, no, there's no killer bees here. We promise.

    All of those are so far into the future, that it's really the challenge of like, how am I going to get everything I need to get on board so that this bee isn't just a laboratory tool, but it can actually exist in the environment?

  • William Brangham:

    So this is?

  • Dr. Marla Spivak:

    Honey and wax.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in Minnesota, Dr. Spivak is pretty skeptical of a technological fix for pollination. She says we need to focus more on protecting the real live bees that are still here.

  • Dr. Marla Spivak:

    It's been a hundred million years of evolution to evolve all of these diverse bee species. And so creating one robot bee is going to miss out on all the other species that they could be pollinating.

    I would much prefer that we take that technology and use it to deliver pesticides in minute quantities where needed and only when needed.

  • William Brangham:

    And for beekeepers like Kristy Allen, there's also no replacement for the real thing.

  • Kristy Allen:

    I hear about, you know, different technologies. I understand there are benefits, but at what cost? I'm not a total Luddite, and I don't think we should just scrap all technology, but a drone vs. a bee, it's a no-brainer decision for me.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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