A "Robotic Honeycomb" Can Monitor Beehives Like Never Before — and Even Offer "Life Support"

As well as providing new insight into hive behavior, this robo-comb allowed researchers to save a colony from collapse in the winter.

Researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Graz have developed a "robotic honeycomb" that, they say, can help provide a "life support" system to prevent thermal collapse of a bee colony as well as provide round-the-clock monitoring.

"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 first author Rafael Barmak of the team's work "The thermal sensors create a snapshot of the bees’ collective behavior, while the actuators allow us to influence their movement by modulating thermal fields."

The honeycomb itself is a smart system driven by an STMicro STM32F405 microcontroller running the ChibiOS real-time operating system (RTOS) and connected to a matrix of 64 Texas Instruments TMP117 temperature sensors, sized to fit within the hexagonal combs. Using this, the team is able to closely monitor the temperature of bees across the surface of the comb — providing more detailed information than previously possible — while also offering the possibility of direct interaction with the insects.

"Previous studies on the thermal behavior of honeybees in winter have relied on observing the bees or manipulating the outside temperature," adds co-author Martin Stefanec of the benefits to the smart honeycomb system. "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 temperature-changing system is based on a two-by-five array of simple copper thermal actuators capable of pushing a total of 158W of heat into the honeycomb. Using this, the team was able to "steer" the bees to particular sides of the honeycomb — and to trigger the heating system when the sensors detected a potential colony collapse.

"In a perturbation experiment, we demonstrated that the robotic device systematically controlled the location of the winter cluster," the team writes. "Moreover, through the sensor array, we detected the thermal collapse of a weakened colony that fell into a chill-coma state, and using thermal actuators, we were able to 'resuscitate' the colony out of this unviable state, consequently extending its life. In another perturbation experiment, the robotic system autonomously measured colony reorganizations and reacted by generating new thermal stimuli to repeatedly reposition the cluster, thereby demonstrating a closed-loop animal-robot interaction."

This isn't the first time beekeepers have turned to technology to give bees a boost. Late last year a team from University of Graz, Czech Technical University, and the Middle East Technical University published a paper on "ecosystem hacking" which proposed the use of AI-assisted robotics installed into hives. Back in 2021, meanwhile, researchers from the University of Maine showcased Janus, a beehive monitoring system based on vibration and radar sensors.

The researchers' work is available in the journal Science Robotics under open-access terms.

Main article image courtesy of MOBOTS/EPFL/Hiveopolis.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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