In this space, we’ve looked at the many ways the future of pollination is in flux. While various types of bees and alternative pollinators like moths and bats are working hard, researchers are still looking to supplement their efforts artificially. (After all, the stability of the planet’s food supply is at stake) But humans with tiny brushes are clumsy and require payment, and bee-sized drones can bump into and destroy the very flowers they are trying to cross-fertilize.
The team that created those very drones set out to develop a gentler way to pollinate. What they have come up with almost belongs on a playground rather than a farmer’s field — soap bubbles! A study of the method was recently headed by Ejiro Miyako, associate professor in the School of Materials Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and published in iScience.
“After confirming through optical microscopy that soap bubbles could, in fact, carry pollen grains, Miyako and Xi Yang, his coauthor on the study, tested the effects of five commercially available surfactants on pollen activity and bubble formation. The neutralized surfactant lauramidopropyl betain (A-20AB) won out over its competitors, facilitating better pollen germination and growth of the tube that develops from each pollen grain after it is deposited on a flower. Based on a laboratory analysis of the most effective soap concentrations, the researchers tested the performance of pear pollen grains in a 0.4% A-20AB soap bubble solution with an optimized pH and added calcium and other ions to support germination. After three hours of pollination, the pollen activity mediated through the soap bubbles remained steady, while other methods such as pollination through powder or solution became less effective.”
The team loaded up bubble guns with the solution, then blew bubbles directly at pear flowers in an orchard, eventually successfully producing fruit. A further test involving artificial flowers and bubble-enabled drones showed a 90% “hit” rate with the drones hovering at 2 meters. All meaning this can work in the wild.
Though further tests and refinements are needed, blowing bubbles on a beautiful spring day may soon have a purpose beyond pure fun — it will support bees and other pollinators in their efforts to keep us alive!