Bees vs. Bubbles: U.S. Honeybee Populations Up, Soap Bubbles Carry Pollen

The bees are back in town.

U.S. honeybee colonies declined less this winter than in previous years, according to an annual survey of beekeepers. The winter loss was the second lowest in 14 years of surveying. Although honeybees do die off in summer, winter die-offs are considered the test of colony health.

After years of bee losses, U.S. beekeepers may now be taking more colonies indoors to overwinter. Honeybees, necessary for pollination of many food crops, can be harmed by diseases, mites, pesticides and loss of habitat.

Farmers and scientists have been working on new ways to pollinate food crops since honeybee populations began to decline. One alternative is to use other pollinating insects, like orchard bees. Another is to spray pollen across the fields. Some farmers even have been driven to laborious hand-pollination of plants.

But a new study from the School of Materials Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology shows that soap bubbles laced with pollen can pollinate plants just as well as these other methods (but not quite as well as honeybees).

Researchers built a tiny drone to help with pollination, but the drone sometimes damaged the flowers it was intended to pollinate.  Then the researchers tried using soap bubbles, which are cheap to produce, don’t damage flowers, have a large surface area and are easily dispersed. The bubbles were formed from a special soap found in baby shampoo plus a few other substances to enhance pollination, including a polymer to strengthen the bubbles.

The soap bubbles were laden with pollen at a concentration of 2,000 grains per bubble. Bubbles released in a pear orchard led to a pollination success rate comparable to hand pollination, 95%, while using much less pollen.

Bees are still more effective pollinators, because they can collect pollen. Also, reliance on non-insect pollinators might encourage farmers to use more pesticides. So, for now, let’s hear it for the bees.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. Do not take action based solely on this article and always consult with an appropriate healthcare professional. This article is purely for informational purposes.

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