New Yorkers are not known to stop and smell the roses, and so when the temperature soared to 70ºF the other week, I barely paused to ponder the strangeness of this sudden onset of spring. Clearly something unusual was going on, but rather than taking a break to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, I simply soldiered on in my hastily assembled spring attire. It felt like late spring, but it looked like the middle of winter, and there was nothing to be done except acknowledge the fact and carry on with the day’s responsibilities.
A few days later it was all a distant memory, as the temperature plummeted back into the teens, a cruel trick of nature dubbed “weather whiplash” by the local media. Unmentioned was the wardrobe whiplash I suffered as well, a minor trauma suffered while rushing to retrieve the down parka from the closet.
The disruption was minor to the human population, but it’s worth pausing to consider the unpredictable effects that such weather can have on wildlife such as bees, butterflies and the plants they feed on.
Considered in this light, such weather is not merely weird, but also worrisome, given, for example, the fragile state of the dwindling bee population in recent years. One in four North American bee species are in danger of extinction, and over half are declining, according to a recent report. Dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, the decline has become a growing concern, not merely to entomologists, but to the general public as well—cheerfully illustrated by General Mills’ removal of the character “BuzzBee” from boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios, to “help bring back the bees.”
The concern isn’t only existential (could bees become extinct?) but also economic, because of the invaluable function bees provide by pollinating crops. Given that 90% of the world’s food comes from 100 or so crop species, and 71 of those depend on bees for pollination, it should come as no surprise that bees’ work in the US generates $15 billion a year across a multitude of crops.
What will happen to our food supply if bees aren’t around to do the work of pollination? One surreal solution involves workers in certain parts of China pollinating pear trees by hand. Of course, such manual pollination only makes economic sense when the price of labor is cheaper than cost of renting bees. Or when there are no bees.
Which brings us to another less frictional but equally fantastic fix features machines doing the work of bees. As proof of concept, a team of scientists and engineers in Japan recently built a small drone that was able to successfully pollinate a flower, and an industrial design student in the US has filed a patent for a drone she calls “Plan Bee”.
While these flying, fertilizing drones have a long way to go before they can do the work of bees on a large scale, the very possibility suggests a frictionless future in which supply chains may need to be redefined, as automation helps them interface with ecosystems to gain even more control and predictability.
We’ve seen the numerous ways that automation technologies have allowed buyers to connect to suppliers more efficiently, whether through frictionless payment processes or through more efficient production and shipping practices, and given all parties greater visibility and control over the goods, supplies and materials moving between them.
Given the essential role that bees perform in (agricultural) supply chains, could we see the same technologies of automation that connect the rest of the supply chain, connected to raw materials and natural resources like bees as well? The Internet of things (IoT) promises to deliver whole new realms of real-time data about supply chains; how much of this data will be tethered to the materials and resources, like bees, that feed into supply chains?
For instance, a bee drone could—theoretically—do more than just pollinate flowers, reporting back on which flowers it had pollinated, tagging them with a sensor and then following the same flight path months later to report on the progress of the fruit produced.
It sounds like science fiction, but in the unlikely future in which bee drones prove both capable and necessary, we’d surely look back on their development as another necessary step in the ongoing automation and interconnection of supply chains, with buyers, suppliers and the world.