Queen bees, robots and smart hives

European scientists are engineering queen bees with robots and smart hives to save their colonies.

Whether it's the news or the dwindling number of bugs hitting your windshield, you may have noticed that the insect world is in bad shape.

In the last three decades, the global biomass of flying insects has decreased by 75%. One of the most visible victims of this trend is the world's most important pollinator: the bee.

In the United States alone, 48% of bee colonies died in 2023, making it the second worst year on record. This significant loss is due in part to colony collapse disorder (CCD), the sudden disappearance of bees. In contrast, European countries reported lower, but still alarming, rates of colonial loss, ranging from 6% to 32%.

This decline is causing inadequate pollination of many of our staple crops, posing a threat to the food security of our communities.

Debunking the sci-fi myth of robot bees

Given this scenario, what can be done? Because of the role pesticides play in the decline of bee colonies, commonly proposed solutions include transitioning from industrial agriculture to more sustainable forms of agriculture that use fewer pesticides.

Others lean toward science fiction: some scientists imagine that we will eventually be able to replace live bees with robots. These artificial bees could interact with flowers like natural insects, maintaining pollination rates despite the decline of natural pollinators.

The idea of ​​artificial pollinators became an incentive to create brilliant designs for flying robots the size of insects. In fact, these inventions teach us more about the imagination of engineers than about how to bring bees to life, so the chances of them becoming a reality are very small.

First, these artificial pollinators would have to be equipped to do more than just fly. The daily tasks of common bees include searching for plants, recognizing flowers, unobtrusively interacting with them, detecting energy sources, avoiding potential predators, and dealing with unfavorable weather conditions.

Robots will need to do all of this in the wild with a high degree of reliability, as any damaged or lost robot can cause damage and spread pollution. Second, it remains to be seen whether our technological knowledge can produce such inventions. And not to mention the cost of a colony of robots to replace the pollination process provided by a colony of bees.

Most viable technological projects

Instead of trying to replace bees with robots, our latest two EU-funded projects propose that robots and bees actually work together. If successful, struggling bee colonies could be converted into biohybrid units that include potentially complementary biological and technological components. This is expected to stimulate and support bee population growth as more bees survive the harsh winters and produce more worker bees to pollinate surrounding ecosystems.

The first of these projects, Hiveopolis, explores how digital technology can support the complex and decentralized decision-making mechanisms of a bee colony. The experiment began in 2019 and will end in March 2024, implementing the technology in three observation hives, each with 4.000 bees, instead of the 40.000 bees in a typical colony.

Inside this smart bee house, the hives are integrated with temperature sensors and heating devices so that the bees can find optimal conditions in the colony. Since bees tend to hide in warmer areas, hives also allow us to direct them to different parts of the hive.

As if this control were not enough, the hives are also equipped with electronic gate systems that monitor the movements of the insects. Both technologies allow us to decide where the bees store honey and pollen and when they leave the hive so we can collect the honey.

Last but not least, the smart hive contains a dancing robot bee that can direct foraging bees to areas with trees for pollination.

Due to the small scale of the experiment, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the extent to which our technology can prevent the loss of bee colonies. However, there is no doubt that what we have seen so far gives reason for hope.

We can certainly confirm that our smart honeycomb allows colonies to survive the cold in the winter as it would otherwise be impossible. To accurately assess the number of bees preserved by these technologies, it is necessary to expand the experiments to hundreds of colonies.

Pamper the queen bees

Our second EU-funded project, RoboRoyale, focuses on queen bees and their colony bees. In this case, the robot continuously monitors and interacts with the Highness of it.

By 2024, we will equip each hive with a fleet of six bee-sized robots to nurture and feed the queen, which will influence the number of eggs she lays.

Some of these robots will be equipped with micropumps to deliver the bee gel, while others will be equipped with compatible microactuators to prepare the gel. These robots will then connect to a larger robotic arm equipped with an infrared camera to continuously monitor the queen and her surroundings.

As the photo on the left and the one below show, we successfully introduced a robotic arm into a living colony.
There, he continually observed the queen and determined her location using light stimuli.
Photo: Pixabay/JanetAB

The hope is that in the second phase, the bee-sized robot and robotic arm can mimic the behavior of worker bees, non-reproductive female bees, by caring for queen bees and feeding them royal jelly.

This nutrient secreted by the glands of worker bees is rich in water, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins and minerals, allowing the queen bee to lay up to thousands of eggs per day.

The workers also clean the queen bees, that is, they lick her. During these interactions, they collect some of the queen's pheromones and spread them throughout the colony as they move through the hive.

The presence of these pheromones controls many colony activities and alerts the colony to the presence of the queen bee. For example, if queen bees die, a new queen must be quickly raised from the egg laid by the dead queen, leaving little time for the bees to react.

Finally, it is believed that worker bees can also act as guides for the queen bee, causing her to lay eggs in specific cells of the hive. The size of these cells can determine whether the queen bee will lay diploid or haploid eggs, thus turning the bee into a male bee or a worker (female) bee. Let us assume that these leadership functions can influence no less than the entire level of reproduction in the country.

How can robots prevent bee cannibalism?

This can have another positive effect: preventing cannibalism. In difficult times, such as prolonged rain, bees have to work with very little pollen. This forces them to feed younger larvae to the older ones so that at least the older larvae have a chance of surviving.

With RoboRoyale, we aim to not only reduce the likelihood of this behavior occurring, but also quantify the extent to which it occurs under normal conditions.

Ultimately, our robot will allow us to advance our knowledge of complex regulatory processes in bee colonies thanks to new experimental procedures. The knowledge acquired in these new lines of research will be essential to better protect these socially valuable insects and guarantee adequate pollination in the future, important for food security.

This article was written by Farshad Arvin, associate professor of robotics at Durham University; Martin Stefanek, assistant professor, Department of Biology, University of Graz; and Tomas Krajnik, assistant professor of robotics at the Czech University of Technology. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


With information from: https://www.sustainability-times.com/