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Pollination: Blowing bubbles could save the world

Reminiscent of a ‘Black Mirror’ episode, we are now looking at the possibility of using soap bubbles to help pollinate flowers in the wake of declining bee populations.

Japanese researchers have come up with a way to pollinate plants using soap bubbles. This could ensure humanity's food security as important pollinators like bees die off. Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell/Unsplash

What has until now been a carefree childhood activity could now be used to ensure humanity’s food security, as researchers in Japan have come up with a way to use soap bubbles to pollinate crops.

According to research published in Science Magazine blowing pollen-saturated bubbles at flowers could replace the work done by bee colonies, which are suffering and at risk of extinction, along with other insect species.

The research comes from Japan, where scientists have been searching for alternative approaches to pollination due to the decline in the number of bees worldwide. Bees are important pollinators, and pollination is necessary for the survival of life on earth.  

Due to mass die-offs of bees, and fear for the extinction of these insects in the future and what that means for us, Dr Eijiro Miyako from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology started testing the ability of drones to deliver pollen. He considered drones to be an option to supplement the work of bees.  

But his drone idea was not fruitful. Even though the drone was tiny (just two centimetres long), it kept damaging the flowers in the process. 

Who says science is not whimsical? 

After the failure of the drones, he had an epiphany while watching his son blowing bubbles in the park. 

“I was playing soap bubbles with my son at a park close to my home, when a soap bubble accidently hit my son’s face,” Dr Miyako told BBC News. 

“There was no damage because soap bubbles are soft, light, and flexible. But I got an inspiration because I thought the bubbles won’t damage the flowers and would be an ideal material for pollination.” 

Dr Miyako and his team set out to mix pear pollen grains into a soap solution containing nutrients and loaded the mixture into a bubble gun. They used the bubble guns to release the pollen loaded bubbles into a pear orchard, aiming to hit every flower with two to ten bubbles. They later measured the rate of success of pollination by counting the flowers that bore fruit. 

Is bubble pollination effective? 

Dr Miyako’s idea of using soap bubbles to deliver pollen to flowers offers an alternative way of fertilising plants while being more delicate than other methods. 

They found that pollination using their soap bubbles had a similar success rate to pollination of the plants by hand, with a success rate of 95% of the flowers bearing fruit. 

Not only is this an extremely fun way of doing science and possibly ensuring food security, but using soap bubbles is also much less labour intensive than manually pollinating every flower. It is also much gentler and more effective than using drones, because delicate flowers are less likely to be damaged in the process. 

The soap bubble pollination technique was later tested on other plants on a smaller scale in Dr Miyako’s lab. They attempted to pollinate lily, azalea and campanula plants, using the gun to direct a single bubble onto individual flowers. In this case the success rates were about 93, 83 and 73 percent respectively.  

Who knows, maybe we’ll be seeing bubbles unleashed over farmlands in the future?

Also read: Scientists plan to farm fish on the moon soon

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