LOWELL, Mass. – Aiming to better understand the pollination process, a UMass Lowell scientist has simulated the buzz of a bee in a microrobot.
UMass Lowell’s Noah Jafferis, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will share in a three-year, $840,000 grant from the Human Frontier Science Program with the University of Sterling’s Mario Vallejo-Marin, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences, who is leading the project. The team aims to use the robots to replicate what scientists call “buzz pollination,” the high-frequency audio process bees use to shake pollen from plants and flowers onto their bodies so they can drop it into other plants and flowers to fertilize them.
Twenty-thousand varieties of plants, including tomatoes, potatoes, and blueberries, depend on buzz pollination, so understanding how bees do it – and which bees do it best – could improve agriculture and help explain the evolution of different types of bees and flowers, according to the researchers.
“This is an exciting opportunity to bring together fundamental biological research and micro-robotic technology to delve into the inner workings of buzz pollination in a way that hasn’t been feasible before,” Jafferis said. “These physical experiments, together with computer simulations, will allow us to build a deeper understanding of which aspects of buzz pollination are most important for pollen release.”
With bee populations worldwide in decline, the researchers say they don’t want to create robotic substitutes for the insects, but instead seek to better understand pollination to support the diversity of bee species.
“In Australia and Southern Africa, for example, they need buzz pollinating bees for pollinating some fruit crops. But bumblebees are not native there, so farmers have resorted to using electric toothbrushes to pollinate tomatoes,” Vallejo-Marin said. “Understanding buzz pollination better could lead to stronger motivation for conserving the diversity of bees, beyond honeybees and bumblebees, as well as potentially optimizing fruit and vegetable yields in agriculture.”
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Emily Gowdey-Backus, Emily_GowdeyBackus@uml.edu
Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944, Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu