Bees keep dying. Walmart wants to replace them with swarms of tiny robots

Honeybees buzz in a hive before beekeepers transfer them to another location.
Honeybees buzz in a hive before beekeepers transfer them to another location. AP

Bees have been in trouble for awhile now - and that means trouble for everyone else.

Scientists have been studying a worrying phenomenon called colony collapse disorder for more than a decade, after beekeepers began reporting that their worker bees in hives were suddenly vanishing. The queen and some young survive for awhile, but can’t live long without the workers.

This is a big problem, not least because bees are responsible for pollinating as much as 80 percent of cultivated crops, according to the University of Arkansas. The global food supply rests on the furry bodies of buzzing bees.

It’s not quite as bad as it used to be; scientists first started picking up on CCD in 2006, and beekeepers have been reporting some modest improvement in losses in the last few years. But it’s still a dire situation, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency say.

But Walmart has a backup plan if things go south: swarms of tiny, autonomous robot bees to do the job instead.

The megastore filed a patent earlier in March for “drone pollinators” to take over the job of bees in agricultural pollination.

It would be a fairly simple design: a sensor to detect pollen, an applicator, a way to move the robot around, and some transmitters so the drones can “talk” to each other and a central database. The drones could be released into a field of flowers, after which they could flit between them, making sure that pollen is being evenly distributed to each one - something that can’t be done with a crop duster.

Walmart hasn’t commented on the patent beyond telling CBS News it was “always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we service customers.” But CB Insights identifies it as one of six patents that Walmart has filed for technologies related to automating farms. It’s unlikely the robo-bees (or any of the other five patented products) would be sold in stores. Rather, CB Insights and others speculate that Walmart plans to use the patents to better control its supplies of produce.

The plan was met with some ridicule. “Saturday Night Live” skewered the idea in a segment on“Weekend Update” and others compared the idea to a harrowing episode of the Netflix show “Black Mirror” where robotic bees are programmed to kill unsuspecting targets.

But Walmart is not alone in this. Several other companies have been working on using robotic, autonomous bees. The National Science Foundation awarded a $9 million grant to researchers at Harvard University to develop robotic bees in 2009. The university has since built a full website for the RoboBees, which can now reportedly dive and swim as well as fly.

A designer at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design have also developed a flying bee drone (complete with black and yellow color scheme), though its creator told CNN she intended it to be more for personal use in gardens and backyards.

In the meantime, there are a few ways non-robots can help out the bees as well, such as by cutting back on your lawn mowing to give bees more time to pollinate or by reducing your use of pesticides.

Concern about colony collapse among the honeybees spurred Bryan and Barbara Ritter of Garland, Kan., to leave leave their jobs in the Kansas City area and move to a farm about 100 miles south and become virtual beekeepers. Essentially we keep bees