Mini flying robots are being built to replace bees in pollinating plants

Harvard has developed tiny drone-like robots that can fly and are meant to pollinate crops just as honeybees do.

The UK isn't the only country facing a food security catastrophe due to falling numbers of honeybee colonies. The total number of managed honey bee colonies in the US has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.5 million today. The White House is so concerned with the situation - mostly because honeybees pollinate one-third of US food - that it gave a task force in June only 180 days to develop a plan to both stem the loss and protect bees.

Meanwhile, Harvard University researchers have already developed an alternative solution called RoboBees. Described as "80-milligram, insect-scale, flapping-wing robots", according to the journal Science, they're essentially bee-sized robots that can hover when tethered to a power supply. Although these robots debuted last year, they've been reworked in recent months and are now more powerful than ever.

Honeybees are vital to US agricultural crops and contribute more than $15 billion in value each year. It's not clear why bees are disappearing across the globe, though scientists have thrown around a phrase called Colony Collapse Disorder and attributed the crisis to a combination of disease and pesticides.

Harvard researchers hope that RoboBees will one day artificially pollinate crops for the honeybees, thus helping the pollination industry and avoiding additional economic impact on the agricultural sector. Although it may take another 20 years of development before that is possible, Kevin Ma, a mechanical engineer at Harvard, told Business Insider that his research team is "on the eve of the next big development."

More specifically, the RoboBees can now carry more weight. This is considered a significant breakthrough, as it was previously impossible to jam all the necessary hardware required into a small robot and still keep it lightweight enough to fly. Researchers are trying to make the bots fly on their own and communicate with each other in order to complete tasks.

That said, Harvard's researchers don't view RoboBees as permanent bee replacements. On the project website, they said robotic pollination isn't a viable long-term solution and described the technology as a "a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented".