The humble honey bee is responsible for up to 80 per cent of plant pollination worldwide. But population numbers are in steep decline because of habitat loss, pesticides and pollution – threatening our food security. One startup has identified a potential solution – the common hoverfly.
UK-based designer Tashia Tucker has created an AI-based technology called Olombria, which encourages hoverflies to increase their pollination levels to match that of bees.
Although flies perform approximately 30 per cent of the world’s pollination, they aren’t as efficient as bees, often getting distracted and “wandering off” before they can carry pollen between plants.
Olombria is a solution – an AI pollination system that encourages hoverflies to pollinate targeted sites when the plants are in bloom. The system consists of sensors, cameras and chemical signalling devices placed within specified areas of an orchard or field.
It starts by collecting data on the level and diversity of pollinators in a grower’s field as well as pollination effectiveness. This information, combined with other environmental data – time, location and temperature – allows the system to paint an overall picture of pollinator health, then take action. “We first provide that baseline data,” Tucker explains, “so we have an understanding of where there are deficiencies and areas that need to be improved, then we distribute our natural chemical signalling from the device.”
Depending on what areas of an orchard need pollinating, Olombria’s AI cloud system triggers chosen devices to release organic chemicals that encourage hoverflies to move towards those specific areas. “The chemicals do not alter what the flies would naturally do, but targets their location and increases the amount of pollen that they’re picking up and transferring,” Tucker explains.
Like planting a mint bush to discourage ants, or basil to deter worms, the chemicals use a combination of plant volatiles and natural signals that insects respond to. The hoverflies work in synergy with the bees and, through Tucker’s research, she’s found that the hoverflies even encourage bees to become more efficient pollinators. “There’s a bit of competition; it focuses the bees’ pollination as there’s another insect in the area,” says Tucker.
As a result of climate change, optimising pollination is increasingly important for growers, and predicting weather changes is an ongoing issue. “In the UK, blooms can come in far earlier than a farmer is expecting, or we have cold or wet weather when it should be warm, and the blooms are late,” says Tucker. “Matching up available bees when there are crazy things going on with the environment is tricky – it’s not always the easiest to just buy more bees to put out.”
In the almond industry, farmers pay a combined $1.5 billion just to rent or purchase bee-hives throughout the bloom season. “In the US, almost every single commercial beehive goes to almond farms for those 3-4 weeks,” says Tucker. “If something happens to your hive, all the other hives are being used, so farmers are at a pinch to figure out how they can pollinate their crops.”
In the UK, many crops are grown inside polytunnels, which honey bees don’t pollinate effectively. Farmers often use bumblebees, which is becoming increasingly untenable, as the species is near extinction. Unlike bumblebees and honey bees, hoverflies are tiny enough to efficiently pollinate small plants and flowers such as blueberry flowers within polytunnels, and are also efficient in rainy weather and at high altitudes.
As a designer, Tucker initially designed Olombria’s device to look like a fruit to reflect the ethos of the design. “When I started working with farmers, I needed to design the technology to be robust enough to stay out on the field and within various weather conditions,” says Tucker. Since then, Tucker has reconfigured the design and is exploring what colours work well with insects. “As we start to streamline the technology, it is becoming more refined,” Tucker explains. “As an AI system, it’s great, as it’s just getting smarter as the technology develops.”
A challenge for Tucker has been to get the balance between the technology that’s needed and what works well for the growers, insects and the environmental conditions. But by developing and refining a product that is accessible, low maintenance and yet high tech, Tucker aims to tackle the pollination crisis, orchard by orchard.
wired.co.uk, 29 June 2020
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