Droning on about bees and blossoms

Bumblebees thrive in Minnesota’s diverse prairies, but will their prosperity continue with climate change? Scientists at the University of Minnesota are using drones to find out.
June 10, 2022

It’s just barely 10 in the morning, and already the hot sun is lifting the night’s dew from the prairie grass. The rustle of wind through tall green leaves makes a shhhh…shhhh…shhhh sound, almost loud enough to drown out the hum of a tiny (and very fuzzy) engine.

Buzzing like mad to keep her rotund body aloft, a bumblebee zig-zags over the sea of grass in her never-ending quest for the next meal. As she scans the ground below for flowers, her busy hum is overtaken by a much louder buzzing sound coming from a drone hovering directly overhead, its camera scanning the ground below. Little does the bumblebee know that the pictures taken by this strange mechanical creature may save her sisters for generations to come. 

Bumblebees’ survival requires having constant access to many types of flowers. However, climate change is making summers on the prairie warmer and drier, which creates long “flowering gaps” across the summer when nothing is blooming. This could spell disaster for bumblebees, who must deliver pollen and nectar back to their hive each day or risk starvation.

From its position high in the sky, the drone can help the bumblebees of the future by taking weekly pictures of a giant field experiment that studies how warming and drought affect the prairie plants. Its mission: determine how climate change could affect the blooming of flowers (and the livelihoods of bees) in years to come.

The drone completes its flight and settles carefully down onto a bare patch of ground with a whoosh of dust, its motor cutting off abruptly. In the relative silence that follows, only the whispering of wind through the prairie grass can be heard. It’s quiet enough to make out a faint pfff sound as the bumblebee collides unceremoniously with her own destination: a large, violently-yellow sprig of goldenrod. 

While the bumblebee gorges herself nearby on goldenrod nectar, the drone’s photos are uploaded to a field computer. Many months from now, in the dead of a Midwestern winter, a team of University of Minnesota scientists will study these pictures to learn where and when “flowering gaps” may occur under future warming and drought. Conservation managers can then use this information to design new prairie restoration projects that offer a constant supply of flowers under anticipated climate change conditions, ultimately keeping future bumblebees (and many other pollinators) from starving.

Covered in pollen from her antennae to the tips of her translucent wings, the bumblebee careens off in search of more quarry. Not long after, the drone’s engine revs, sending it bouncing back into the air on a rogue breeze, its motors once again drowning out the bumblebee’s receding hum. Even after several (human) lifetimes of research, we still have much to learn about these fascinating, fuzzy creatures. Thanks to mechanical creatures like the one now buzzing away across the prairie, we may get many (bee) lifetimes more. —Maggie Anderson


This piece is part of the BioLine platform. It's a graduate student-led blog and email newsletter centered on sharing recent bio-related research findings and stories.