Honeycomb for winter protection

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High-tech in the beehive: The smart honeycomb with robotic elements can control
High-tech in the beehive: The smart honeycomb with robotic elements can control the temperature and monitor the health of the insects. Photo. Uni Graz/Artificial Life Lab/Project Hiveopolis

Smart heating saves bees from cold death

Up to a third of bee colonies worldwide die over the winter, often due to excessively low temperatures. In cooperation with the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the team of the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz has developed a high-tech honeycomb that can monitor the animals during the cold season and regulate the heat supply in the hive. In addition, the invention, which can be controlled from the outside, provides previously impossible insights into the insects’ behavior. The initial research results have just been published in the scientific journal Science Robotics.

Opening the hive in winter to observe the animals or check on their well-being would be fatal. Our robotic system helps us to study and understand the behavior of honey bees. We can enter into a dialogue with the animals and thus fathom their survival mechanisms," explains Martin Stefanec. He is a biologist at the University of Graz and one of the main authors of the study. Among other things, the researchers expect to gain insights into the so-called winter cluster, the formation of bees in the hive during the cold months.

High-tech with remote control
The smart honeycomb is equipped with 64 high-precision temperature sensors and ten heating fields and autonomously regulates the heat of the winter cluster. It can also warn beekeepers by text message of an impending temperature collapse. The beekeepers can then take timely countermeasures from the outside. By regulating the heating at specific points, the bees can not only be kept warm, but can also be diverted to areas with a higher honey content. They need places with a specific temperature and move there on their own," explains Stefanec.
Many rules of bee society - from collective and individual interactions to the rearing of healthy brood - are regulated by temperature," adds Rafael Barmak of EPFL, also lead author of the study. The researchers want to take advantage of this and also use the honeycomb in the spring in the future. At this time of year, the colony must grow quickly through brood production in order to reach the critical mass for the colony’s continued existence.

About Hiveopolis
As part of the Hiveopolis project led by Thomas Schmickl, the team from the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz and the Mobile Robotic Systems Group at EPFL have set themselves the common goal of using technology to support the honey bee in such a way that it is strengthened for the future in times of global species extinction. The project is being funded by the EU for five years - until March 31, 2024 - with around seven million euros. Other partners are the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Freie Universität Berlin, Bee Smart Technologies Sofia, Latvijas Biozinatnu un Tehnologiju Universitate and Humboldt-Universität Berlin.

Rafael Barmak and Martin Stefanec, Daniel N. Hofstadler, Louis Piotet, Stefan Schönwetter-Fuchs-Schistek, Francesco Mondada, Thomas Schmickl, Rob Mills: A robotic honeycomb for interaction with a honeybee colony, Science Robotics.

Dagmar Eklaude