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What Will Replace Insects When They're Gone?

This story is adapted from The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, by Oliver Milman.

What, though, if we don’t act quickly enough? If the fall of insects’ tiny empires causes whole ecosystems to unravel, toppling previously solid certainties about the way our world functions, what then?

It’s easy to foresee how diminishing supplies of certain foods and crashing wildlife populations will heap cascading suffering on the poor and vulnerable, given the lopsided nature of societies, and perhaps even stoke embers of resentment and nationalism as foundational resources become scarcer. It’s also reasonable to anticipate that we will reflexively grasp for a technological fix to the mess we’ve created.

Expectation is already being ladled upon projects, still in their infancy, to create genetically modified pollinators resistant to disease and chemicals or to fashion machines topped with tiny cannons that fire pollen at plants and therefore address some of the causes of the climate collapse. Other scientists have turned their ingenuity to replicating the form and function of winged insects—​researchers at Harvard University have devised diminutive robots that can swim before exploding out of the water into flight, using soft artificial muscles to harmlessly bounce off walls and other obstacles. Counterparts in the Netherlands have taken inspiration from the humble fruit fly, re-​creating the motion of their rapid wing beats in a robot with wings made of mylar, the material used in space blankets. The Delft University of Technology’s DelFly can hover, flip 360 degrees around pitch and roll axes, and accelerate to the speed of a human sprint within a few seconds.Matej Karásek, a researcher working on the project, says he’s long been fascinated by the agility and spatial awareness of insects, even before he started working on the DelFly. “Whenever I walk outdoors and I see an insect I think ‘how are they able to do this?’ ” he says. Karásek’s robots aren’t an exact substitute for a fly or bee—​for one thing they have a 33-​centimeter (13-​inch) wingspan, making them 55 times the size of a fruit fly—​and the conundrum of carrying large pollen payloads without losing maneuverability means they aren’t quite ready to hum alongside the real thing. But there is confidence that day will arrive, drawn from the certainty many of us have that technology will eventually solve all of society’s intractable ills.Perhaps the answer will be an army of larger hexacopter-​like drones, such as the fleet operated by US company Dropcopter, which autonomously pollinated an orchard of apples in New York for the first time in 2018. Or maybe the answer is a sophisticated robotic arm, which, using cameras, wheels, and artificial intelligence, can locate and hand-​pollinate plants without getting tired or bored like human workers. The US Department of Agriculture is funding one such effort, which, according to one of its leading experts, Manoj Karkee of Washington State University, promises to be a “genuine replacement for the natural pollination process” and is even “expected to be as effective or even more effective than natural pollinators like bees.”Entomologists are instinctively disdainful of any suggestion that pollinating insects could somehow be matched by technology, even on a basic logistical level. Biologist Dave Goulson points out that bees are rather adept at pollinating flowers, given they’ve been honing their skills for around 120 million years, and that, besides, there are around 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each stuffed with tens of thousands of bees feeding and breeding for free. “What would the cost be of replacing them with robots?” Goulson asks. “It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that.” To be fair to those devoted to appropriating the characteristics of insects for our use, there is widespread awe at the evolutionary brilliance of flies and bees and scant joy at the crisis that has brought us to the point where the meanderings of academic curiosity are being seized upon as possible salvation from our degenerate ways. When we consider technological solutions, we should perhaps spend less time judging the supply and more time judging the reasons why there’s demand in the first place.