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The buzz in Lowell: Replicating how bees pollinate

A prototype of a robo-buzzer capable of shaking the stamens of a buzz-pollinated plant and inducing pollen release. The prototype is attached to a toothpick (2mm diameter) using copper wire "legs" for illustration.Mario Vallejo-Marin

A University of Massachusetts Lowell researcher who specializes in building micro-robots is using his skills to help uncover how bees pollinate through buzzing.

Noah Jafferis and a research colleague in Scotland were recently awarded an $840,000 grant to build tiny robots that can replicate buzz pollination, the high-frequency sounds created by certain types of bees that shake pollen from plants and flowers. As with other species of bees, they spread the pollen that collects on them, fertilizing other plants.

The robots are not intended for use in the wild, but to broaden scientific understanding of buzz pollination, according to Jafferis, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.


Noah Jafferis.UMASS LOWELL

“We are trying to learn how buzz pollination works in nature,” said Jafferis, who is teaming on the three-year project with Mario Vallejo-Marin, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling.

About 20,000 varieties of plants — including tomatoes, potatoes, and blueberries — depend on buzz pollination, so the researchers said learning more about the natural process could enhance agricultural production and promote the health of bees, which have been in decline worldwide.

Drawing on their specialties, Vallejo-Marin will observe bees engaging in buzz pollination and Jafferis will use that information as a basis for creating micro-robots that can mimic it. The grant came from the Human Frontiers Science Program, which supports international inter-scientific collaboration.

“This is an exciting chance to bring together fundamental biological research and micro-robotic technology to delve into the inner workings of buzz pollination in a way that hasn’t been feasible before,” Jafferis said.

“My favorite part of the research ... is the opportunity to study how and why different bees differ in their capacity to buzz pollinate flowers,” Vallejo-Marin said by e-mail. “Potential benefits of our research, down the line, include understanding better what kind of bee vibrations are best to pollinate different types of flowers, including perhaps even crop species like tomato.


“We hope that our research convinces others of the importance of safeguarding bee diversity beyond the best-known species of honeybees and bumblebees,” he added.

Vallejo-Marin said he first became interested in buzz pollination when he was studying floral evolution and became “intrigued by the high-pitch sounds that bumblebees made” while visiting flowers.

“The sound is produced as the bees shake the flowers and thus, the first time I came across buzz pollination is when I heard it!” he said. “Once you start looking more closely into this amazing form of bee pollination, you soon become hooked because it has a bit for everybody: evolution, ecology, biophysics, bee behavior.”

Jafferis, a Yale University graduate with a doctorate from Princeton University, came to UMass Lowell in January 2021 after eight years doing postgraduate research at Harvard University’s Microrobotics Laboratory, which included helping develop RoboBees, micro-devices that can fly like insects.

The two researchers started discussing the idea of collaborating on a buzz pollination project when Jafferis attended a lecture Vallejo-Marin gave on the subject at Harvard several years ago. Jafferis said the grant offered them “a fantastic opportunity” to pursue that work.

Jay Weitzen, professor and interim chair of UMass Lowell’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, recalled that when Jafferis was first interviewed for his position, “We were amazed by his talk about micro-robotics and decided to hire him to bring this area of research to our department.


“His work in micro-robotic bee pollination sounds like science fiction, but he and his team are making it happen,” Weitzen added. “The potential of his research to enhance agricultural production in a time of food shortages makes his research even more important. He is part of a group of young faculty stars that have joined our faculty over the past few years. The best is yet to come from this group.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.