How robotic honeybees and hives could help the species fight back

Schmickl, who now leads the Artificial Life Laboratory at the University of Graz in Austria, was not wrong. Studies in various parts of the world since then have found that insect populations are declining or changing. After working in the field of swarm robotics for several years — using nature to inspire robots — Schmickl decided to turn his work around and design robots to help nature, a concept he calls to be ecosystem hack.

He is focusing on the bees. Honey bees and other pollinators face habitat loss, pesticide exposure and other challenges, and Schmickl believes supporting them can help strengthen entire ecosystems. Already, some companies offer enhanced beehives that monitor the conditions inside, or even bees tend to be robots. Now Schmickl and his colleagues want to go a step further and use technology to manipulate insect behavior.

Talk to the pack

Schmickl’s team is building a prototype beehive as part of a European Union-funded project called Hiveopolis. One of the group’s hives resembles a stylized tree trunk, similar to a hollow tree where honey bees might nest in the wild. In an effort to use sustainable materials, the honeycomb is made from 3D-printed clay and from mushrooms grown on recycled coffee grounds, says Schmickl.

The prototype honeycomb is equipped with sensors and cameras, as well as devices that can create vibrations inside the hive and regulate temperature or airflow. Such tools could eventually guide bees’ traffic patterns: Schmickl’s experiments have shown that vibration slows down bees, while air movement encourages them to walk away.

Hiveopolis collaborator Tim Landgraf, a professor of artificial and collective intelligence at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, is working on another kind of tool for these hives: a dancing robotic bee.

When true honey bees return from foraging, they perform a special “waggle dance” to announce the location of the food. Other bees join the forager’s dance, and when enough bees do the same dance, they fly out in search of food. “It’s kind of a polling process,” says Schmickl.

In previous research, Landgraf built a robot that can perform the wobble dance so convincingly that other bees follow it — and at least sometimes fly in the direction the robot suggests. Now, he’s ready to test an improved version of the waggle robot and see if it can lead honey bees to a food source. The robot does not look like a bee to the human eye. Its body is simply a small, flexible tube with a fluttering “wing”. But it’s connected to a motor outside the hive that can be controlled and sent it across the hive’s dance floor.


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