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Thursday, 21 April 2011


Beekeeping is a three-way symbiotic mutualism.  The plants get pollinated by the bees, the bees get fed from the plants' nectar (and get extra nectar for their nest), and we get some of the extra nectar as honey and also get our crops pollinated.  We contribute the tilled land for the crops, the beehives, and medical care for both the plants and the bees.  All round, a very satisfactory Darwinian arrangement for the three parties.

But only one of those three parties is smart enough to understand how the whole thing works, and to use that understanding deliberately to enhance or to copy the mutualism.  That would be us.

We all know that leafcutter ants from the two genera Atta and Acromyrmex use the leaf-parts that they gather to farm fungi in their nests for food.  Given the rich social-insect resources of bees and ants, it ought to be possible  to genetically-engineer a species that farms out in the open.   That is, a species that would plant a crop, tend it, sting other species who would eat it, then harvest it concentrating it in one place.  We, once again, would provide the cleared land, the nest boxes, and the Medicaid.

This would be far too useful and powerful a technology to waste on mere honey.  Honey has a specific energy of 13 MJ per kilogram.  Vegetable oil, on the other hand, has a specific energy of 35 MJ per kilogram.  Our social-insect farmers could plant, tend, and harvest an oil crop for their own benefit, the crop's benefit, and our benefit.  (Bees already make wax, of course, so some of the chemistry is more-or-less written in the genes already.)

We could then use the oil in the place of petroleum.  Carbon neutral, future-proof, and entirely solar powered, the oil would simply drain from the insects' nests down a network of plastic pipes to the processing factory, leaving some behind to fuel the insects in their toil...


Valdis said...

It sounds interesting and could be affordable for food industry. It will be too expensive for power industry though.
Getting oil from seeds (most of current technologies) is expensive, but taking it from nectar would be even worse. Flying is expensive stuff also, and oil production would not be as now, if it would built on aviation in place of tankers.
Real breakthrough will be when oil will be reliably produced directly from grass (i.e. all biomass, not only seeds) something like: harvesting, blendering and simple settling of oil, or by fermenting sugars into alcohol.

Adrian Bowyer said...

I meant getting the oil from the seeds, not the nectar. But people wouldn't be doing that - the insects would. Most of the organisms involved would have to be genetically modified.

Valdis said...

But bees also produce CO2 when flying. Considering oil/bee flying weight ratio, they will use much more oil for transporting than produced. Only good thing -- they would use green fuel.
Ants could be more effective as they can carry much more weight than they own.

Adrian Bowyer said...

But does it matter how (in)efficient the system is? It's all carbon neutral. And photosynthesis is only about 3% efficient anyway (which is pretty lousy compared with - say - a PV cell). Obviously we'd like the system to be as efficient as possible, but a fully autonomous fully self-replicating system is much more important than efficiency. Once you have that, you can start using simple Darwinian pressure to drive the efficiency up.

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