As wild insect populations decline and commercial honeybee colonies suffer maladies, farmers are seeking new ways to pollinate their crops. Some hire alternative insects, like blue orchard bees. Others drive huge pollen-spraying rigs or daub each flower by hand with a paintbrush.

In the future, some may blow bubbles. In a study published recently in iScience, researchers describe a type of soap bubble which, when laced with pollen, can propagate fruit as well as any of these other methods, save perhaps for bees themselves.

Eijiro Miyako, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, has spent years looking for a better artificial pollination method – especially one that could replace hand pollination, which he said farmers have told him is “really hard work and annoying”.

In 2017, he and some colleagues built a new tool: A tiny drone lined with horsehair coated in a special gel. But the machine was clumsy and difficult to control: “It sometimes broke the flowers,” Miyako said.

More recently, during a day in the park with his son, it occurred to Miyako that soap bubbles are much gentler. They also have a large surface area, are easily dispersed, and don’t cost very much. He and a postdoctoral researcher, Xi Yang, headed to the lab to build a better bubble.

The researchers used a pollen concentration that worked out to about 2,000 grains per bubble and took their superbubbles to a pear orchard, and blew them at each of 50 pear flowers. Ninety-five per cent of the flowers later bore fruit. This was the same success rate as hand-pollinated pears but required less time and effort.

The bubble-based approach “does appear to have potential,” said Dave Goulson, a biology professor at the University of Sussex in England and an expert in pollination.

But, he added, there are still many things bees can do that bubbles can’t, like collecting pollen in the first place, which is half the job. Goulson is also concerned that if farmers no longer rely on insects, they might start using more pesticides. Overall, the method “sounds like a childhood fantasy,” Miyako said. “But it’s fully effective.”

The Daily Telegraph

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