Queen bees, robots and intelligent hives

European scientists are using robots and intelligent hives to develop queen bees to save their colonies.

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

Over the past three decades, global flying insect biomass has declined 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 losses, ranging from 6% to 32%.

This decline results in inadequate pollination of many of our staple crops and poses a threat to the food security of our communities.

Debunking the science fiction myth of robot bees

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

Others lean towards science fiction: Some scientists assume that we will eventually be able to replace living 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 develop 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 reality are very slim.

First, these artificial pollinators would have to go beyond the ability to fly. The daily tasks of common bees include searching for plants, recognizing flowers, interacting with them unobtrusively, detecting energy sources, avoiding potential enemies, and dealing with adverse weather conditions.

Robots in the wild must do all of this with a high level 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 robot colony that will replace the pollination process with a colony of bees.

The most viable technology 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, potentially containing complementary biological and technological components. This is expected to stimulate and support the growth of the bee population as more bees survive the harsh winters and produce more worker bees that pollinate the surrounding ecosystems.

The first of these projects, Hiveopolis, examines 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. The technology will be implemented in three observation hives, each with 4,000 bees, instead of the 40,000 bees in a typical bee colony.

In this intelligent bee house, the hives are equipped with temperature sensors and heaters so that the bees have 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 wasn’t enough, the hives are also equipped with electronic gate systems that monitor the insects’ movements. 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 includes 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 bee colony loss. However, there is no doubt that what we have seen so far gives cause for hope.

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We can confirm with certainty that our intelligent honeycombs allow bee colonies to survive the cold winter in a way that would otherwise be impossible. In order to accurately determine the number of bees obtained through 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 colonies. In this case, the robot continuously monitors and interacts with His Highness.

By 2024, we will equip each hive with a fleet of six bee-sized robots to care for and feed the queen, which will impact 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 produce the gel. These robots then connect to a larger robotic arm equipped with an infrared camera to continuously monitor the queen and her surroundings.

Image 20

As the photo on the left and the photo below show, we have managed to introduce a robotic arm into a living colony.
There he continuously 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, i.e. non-reproductive female bees, by caring for queen bees and feeding them royal jelly.

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

The workers also clean the queen bees, which means they lick them. 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 of the colony’s activities and alerts the colony to the presence of the queen bee. For example, when queen bees die, a new queen must be quickly raised from the egg laid by the dead queen so that the bees have little time to react.

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

How can robots prevent cannibalism in bees?

This can have another positive effect: preventing cannibalism. In difficult times, such as persistent 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 survival.

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

Ultimately, our robot will enable us to use new experimental procedures to expand our knowledge of complex regulatory processes in bee colonies. The knowledge gained in these new research directions will be crucial to better protect these socially valuable insects and to ensure sufficient pollination in the future, which is important for food security.

This article was written by Farshad Arvin, Associate Professor of Robotics at Durham University. Martin Stefanek, Assistant Professor, Institute of Biology, University of Graz; and Tomas Krajnik, assistant professor of robotics at the Czech Technical University. It is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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