Ludwig Eksteen Turns to the Raspberry Pi Pico to Save a Colony of "Balbyter" Ants

Kept too warm, the colony will die. Too cold, same. So, these balbyter ants get a little assistance from a Raspberry Pi Pico.

Entomologist Ludwig Eksteen has turned to the Raspberry Pi Pico to help keep a colony of somewhat unfortunately-named "balbyter" ants — translating exactly as it sounds — alive by monitoring their environmental conditions.

"These ants have been in grave danger," Eksteen, who runs the YouTube channel A BugMan's Life, explains. "And after a few weeks of studies, struggling and coding I believe that we have saved them! The aim is to get them to survive winter, but not to keep them too hot in order to avoid early colony death."

"I used a quick and simple solution to make sure that the ants don't get too cold, by placing a heat pad next to their enclosure. But, you see, this is a problem because these ants must have a hibernation period and with the heat pad next to them they don't get that cooler period in which they can hibernate."

An unusual mission for a Raspberry Pi Pico: Saving a balbyter ant colony. (📹: Ludwig Eksteen)

Without that hibernation cycle, the queen will continue to lay eggs — and the colony will grow until it exhausts local resources. The solution: Environmental monitoring, courtesy of a Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board programmed in MicroPython.

"We will be using a temperature sensor, a relay, a red LED, an RGB LED, and an OLED display," Eksteen notes. "The OLED display indicates the current temperature and the status of the heating, whether it's on or off, as well as the maximum and minimum recorded temperatures."

"Both the LEDs are for quick visual indication of the current status of the system: The red LED indicates whether the heat pad is currently on or off; the RGB LED indicates the temperature with green being within the desired range. All the blue hues indicate that the temperature is too low, and all the red hues indicate that the temperature is too high."

While Eksteen's project doesn't extend to automatic environmental control, the Raspberry Pi Pico has plenty of spare input/output capacity for a future upgrade. For now, though, the build fulfils its task: "It has been 12 hours since we first activated the Raspberry Pi Pico within this enclosure," Eksteen notes towards the end of the video, "and to my great delight the temperature has been very stable within the desired range which in my opinion makes this a successful project."

The full video, with circuit diagram, is now available on Eksteen's YouTube channel.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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