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Hitching a ride with a honeybee

Speed read
  • Bees communicate via the famous waggle dance
  • Harnessing bees with drones collects brain data in real-time and unpacks how they learn
  • Hive communication points to distributed intelligence solutions for human society

Since Austrian researcher Karl von Frisch first studied the waggle dance in the mid-1920s, scientists have learned that honeybees move in a figure-eight dance routine to tell other members of the hive where food sources are located.

<strong>Do the hokey-pokey. </strong> Bees tell a story about food with the waggle dance. but there's more to the story than that. To find out what, Landgraf's biorobotics group is learning to think like a bee. Courtesy Wikimedia. <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode'>Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0</a>

However, how honeybees use their brains to create memories of different locations and communicate these memories with fellow members of the honeybee swarm is mysterious to researchers.

To solve this problem, Tim Landgraf of Freie Universität collects neurophysiological data from bees in real-time to understand how their brain structures work.

“There are so many hows and whys and those types of questions with this research,” Landgraf says. “I would be happy to find out a little bit more about how brains capture relevant structures in the world, even in the brain of a small bee.”

The moving data challenge

For some larger insects, like dragonflies, it’s possible for scientists to plant electrodes into their brains to record data. The small size of the honeybee, however, created a challenge for Landgraf and his team, as the electronics that amplify, digitize, and store the data are too big to be carried by a honeybee.

Eventually, they decided to tether individual bees onto tiny copters to record neurophysiological data, pictures, and videos of the bees performing tasks.

“Bees are very complex in their navigation strategies,” Landgraf says. “We thought, ‘well, okay, let’s put the bee on a copter, use the copter to carry equipment and use robotics to make the sensory impression of the bee as realistic as possible.’”

In addition to studying the waggle dance, Landgraf also researched how bees solve task collectively.<strong>Mimic masters.</strong> Members of the Biorobotics Lab at Freie Universität apply principles found in natural systems to technical systems in human society. Courtesy Tim Landgraf.

“We mark all the bees individually and track them over weeks, so more than a lifetime of a single bee,” Landgraf says. “We can understand how young bees clean cells, interact with the queen, store food, and whether or not they become guards protecting the hive.”

As a group, bee hives operate similar to central processing units, in which the bees execute tasks with a clear set of directions. They differ, however, in that there is no central unit sending commands, as the queen’s job is simply to lay eggs for the hive.

“If you look at a bee colony, there are so many things happening in parallel,” Landgraf says. “There might be other bees trying to rob the food, the temperature might have to be raised or lowered, food needs to be collected. They just do these tasks, they know somehow.”

Attaching copters to honeybees and tracking live data creates a massive amount of information. Tracking movements in a hive during a nine-week season, for example, means that as much as 200 terabytes of data are collected.

 I believe we have to start with the smallest of insects to learn more about our own brains. ~ Tim Landgraf

Landgraf used the supercomputing resources at the Zuse Institut Berlin to store and analyze this data.

“The Zuse Institut gives us free storage and free computation,” Landgraf says. “We use 700 terabytes of it to store our data. For us, the computational project is not too bad in terms of storage.”

Bee(p), bee(p)  

Studying how bees solve tasks both individually and collectively provides information for a surprising side project of Landgraf’s.

Self-driving cars, once a fantasy in television shows like Knight Rider, are fast becoming a reality due to companies like Google and General Motors, and because of evidence that they may be safer than regular cars. A study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2016 found that the crash rate for self-driving cars was lower than the overall national crash rate.

However, many self-driving cars rely on electric power whose charging time might be limited.

“Right now we see a charging time of four to five hours,” Landgraf says. “This wouldn’t be a good thing for self-driving taxis. If they’re driving 20 hours of the day and have to wait four hours, they could lose some business in that time.”

<strong>Come fly with me. </strong> Researchers at Freie Universität are using the neurocopter to find out how a bee learns and processes information. They'd like to apply this understanding to human systems like networks of autonomous vehicles. Courtesy Tim Landgraf.

To maximize efficiency, Landgraf simulated a swarm of self-driving cars operating in tandem, similar to how a bee hive functions by completing self-directed tasks.

“It’s the same thing with the honeybees,” Landgraf says. “We’re looking at how complex patterns emerge from the interaction of single, simple units.”

The implications of studying the neurophysiology of honeybees could also offer insight into the neurophysiology of our own brains, and how we communicate with each other.

“If we can understand how a small honeybee brain works, it will tell us so many things not just in bees,” Landgraf says. “It will tell us about how things are organized in other brains, such as our own. Although it’s a fair stretch, I believe we have to start with the smallest of insects to learn more about our own brains.”

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