A new temperature-modulating robotic system reveals previously unknown collective honeybee behaviour, opening the door to new possibilities for helping bees survive in a changing climate.
The EU-funded HIVEOPOLIS project has developed a robotic system that can interact with a honeybee colony. Built into the frame of a standard hive, the unobtrusive system measures and influences honeybee behaviour by adapting the hive’s temperature.
Described in the journal ‘Science Robotics’, the system composed of thermal sensors and actuators creates an opportunity to further investigate collective animal behaviours and ways to help honeybees survive the pressures of climate change. “Many rules of bee society – from collective and individual interactions to raising a healthy brood – are regulated by temperature, so we leveraged that for this study,” explains the study’s co-first author PhD student Rafael Barmak of HIVEOPOLIS project partner Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, in a news item posted on the university’s website. “The thermal sensors create a snapshot of the bees’ collective behavior, while the actuators allow us to influence their movement by modulating thermal fields.”
Modulating temperature from within
Bee colonies are sensitive to cold, and opening their hives in order to study them in winter risks influencing their behaviour, not to mention harming them. The biocompatible robotic system overcomes previous studies’ reliance on manipulating outside temperatures so as to observe their behaviour in winter, according to co-first author PhD student Martin Stefanec of HIVEOPOLIS project coordinator University of Graz, Austria. “Our robotic system enables us to change the temperature from within the cluster, emulating the heating behavior of core bees there, and allowing us to study how the winter cluster actively regulates its temperature.”
The research team’s robotic system made it possible to study three experimental hives located at the University of Graz in winter and to control them remotely from EPFL. The system consists of a central processor that coordinates the sensors, sends commands to the actuators and transmits data to the scientists – all without the use of intrusive cameras.
“By gathering data on the bees’ position and creating warmer areas in the hive, we were able to encourage them to move around in ways they would never normally do in nature during the winter, when they tend to huddle together to conserve energy,” states co-author Dr Francesco Mondada, also of EPFL. “This gives us the possibility to act on behalf of a colony, for example by directing it toward a food source, or discouraging it from dividing into too-small groups, which can threaten its survival.”
Using the robotic system in what the study describes as a “life-support” mode – in which heat energy is distributed via its thermal actuators – the team was also able to prolong a colony’s survival after the death of its queen. This ability could help improve bee survivability in the face of declining pollinator populations worldwide.
New honeybee behaviours were also observed thanks to this system. “The local thermal stimuli produced by our system revealed previously unreported dynamics that are generating exciting new questions and hypotheses,” remarks EPFL postdoctoral researcher and senior author Dr Rob Mills. “For example, currently, no model can explain why we were able to encourage the bees to cross some cold temperature ‘valleys’ within the hive.”
The researchers supported by HIVEOPOLIS (FUTURISTIC BEEHIVES FOR A SMART METROPOLIS) next plan to use the system to study honeybee behaviour in summertime.