Israel develops world’s first commercial alternative to bee pollination
Robots are replacing bumblebees as a more efficient and reliable way of pollinating crops.
Arugga, a startup based in Israel, is, for the first time, commercializing robots that mimic the buzzing of a bumblebee.
The robot, called Polly, produces strong vibrations to dislodge pollen from the flowers and fertilize them so they can produce fruit. It does what the bumblebee has always done, but with greater success.
Tests in commercial greenhouses in Israel, Australia and the United States, show tomatoes pollinated by Polly had yields up to five per cent higher than those pollinated by bumblebees in the traditional way, and up to 20 per cent higher than manual pollination.
The company says its robots could entirely replace bumblebees, which are vital for the production of tomatoes, blueberries, potatoes and many other crops.
The Polly is an autonomous ground robot that drives down rows of tomato plants in greenhouses, capturing images of every flower, and using artificial intelligence to detect which ones are ready to be pollinated.
It then shoots out air pulses to replicate buzz pollination, the delicate process in which bumblebees vibrate the middle of their bodies hundreds of times a second to release the pollen and fertilize the flower. It works for tomatoes and other crops which contain both male and female parts.
The Polly has already been deployed at greenhouses in North America, Australia, and most recently in Finland with producer Agrifutura Oy, which grows nearly 500,000 square feet of tomatoes.
Farmers lease the robots, and pay a monthly fee per hectare. Polly currently works only with tomatoes, but there are plans to expand to other crops requiring buzz pollination.
“We will slowly deploy robots over all of these growers’ hectares, and we already have 100 hectares booked that are waiting for our robots,” Iddo Geltner, CEO and Co-founder of Arugga, tells NoCamels.
There are alternatives to bumblebees in greenhouses, but they are low-tech and impractical. Some farmers in Australia and South Africa actually use electric toothbrushes to manually pollinate their crops.
“There’s no reason for bumblebees to be bred – they don’t help the environment,” says Geltner.
“In places where they are not indigenous, they have escaped greenhouses and destroyed the local bumblebee population. This happened in Japan, and that’s why countries like Australia buzz pollinate manually.”
Evidence also indicates that mass-produced bumblebees carry diseases harmful to wild honeybees, pollinators that are essential for producing crops that feed 90 per cent of the world, and are already declining around the world at rapid rates.
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They transmit viruses between flowers, they are unable to work in very cold or hot temperatures and they are sensitive to pesticides. And unlike robots, they cannot be monitored for precise measurement of their pollination success.
Over the next year, Arugga aims to deploy its robots over several hundreds hectares, especially in North America, but also in Europe and Australia.
This isn’t the first time robot bumblebees have been created, but it is the first time they are being used commercially. US and UK scientists are building microrobots the size of a fingernail to understand how buzzing affects pollination, but they are still being developed.
And researchers at Harvard University are developing the RoboBee, a fully autonomous swarm of flying robots for applications beyond artificial pollination, including search and rescue, and surveillance.
The Polly is effective and reliable as a pollinator, but is also being developed as a greenhouse assistant, performing a range of other tasks.
“Pollination is our first product, replacing bumblebees and human labor that pollinate around the world,” says Geltner.
Greenhouse farming is one of the most labor intensive sectors in agriculture. Thousands of laborers get sick from heat exposure, and they are at constant risk of injury from hazardous equipment and machinery.
That’s why the company plans to increase the Polly’s functionality by adding plant lowering, non-contact pruning, and pest and disease detection in the coming years.
“The Polly will be able to monitor the plants and help growers understand what the situation of the plants are, how to treat them, as well as the early detection of pests and diseases,” says Geltner.
“With every new year, we would like to add additional features and abilities to the robot to replace more and more tasks in the greenhouse.
“We’ve designed our robots to automate greenhouse farming and alleviate these labor issues.”
Geltner was fascinated the problem of using bees to pollinate crops, as well as their worldwide decline, and wanted a change after working for 14 years in the medical device industry developing technology for breast cancer surgery. He founded Arugga, which means flowerbed in Hebrew.
It addresses problems with bumblebees, but not honey bees, which pollinate most of the crops we consume and do not use buzz pollination. Squash bees (which pollinate zucchini and butternut squashes), and leafcutter bees (which pollinate alfalfa, carrots, and other fruits and veg) are also used commercially, among other types of bees.