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Smart high-tech honeycomb protects bees from cold death

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Smart high-tech honeycomb protects bees from cold death

At temperatures around ten degrees Celsius, honey bees retreat to their hive. Extreme cold snaps can still affect them and lead to bee deaths.

At temperatures around ten degrees Celsius, honey bees (Apis mellifera) retreat to their hives. Extreme cold snaps can still affect them and lead to bee deaths. The team from the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz, in cooperation with the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has developed a high-tech honeycomb that can monitor the winged insects in winter and automatically regulate the heat supply in the beehive.

When it gets cold outside, honey bees stay indoors. In order to survive the frosty temperatures, they form the so-called winter cluster by sitting close together on the honeycomb and keeping each other warm – the queen squats in the middle. The bees generate heat by vibrating their muscles, but sometimes that doesn’t help either – the bees fall into a frost coma, stop moving and finally freeze to death, like the Graz zoologist and head of the Artificial Life Lab, Thomas Schmickl explained.

“Resurrect” Frost Coma Bees

“On very cold winter days, beekeepers cannot simply open the hive and see how the bees are doing. They can intervene and feed them, but only in the spring will they see how many have not survived the winter,” said Schmickl. With a honeycomb system that uses sensors to record how the bees behave inside the hive and that can react to this in a targeted manner – for example with additional heat supply – the condition of the insects could be monitored and their survival made easier.

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As part of the EU-funded “Hiveopolis” project, the researchers from Graz and Lausanne have therefore developed and tested a smart beehive that can do this. They have now published the first research results in the journal “Science Robotics”. As the experiments with the high-tech combs have shown, a weakened swarm of bees that had already fallen into a frost coma could even be “revived”.

“In the hive, it should never get colder than 18 degrees Celsius”

The smart honeycomb is equipped with 64 high-precision temperature sensors and ten heating fields and can regulate the warmth of the winter grapes autonomously. “It should never be colder than 18 degrees Celsius in the hive, and heating can be added if necessary,” says Schmickl. In addition, the honeycomb could inform the beekeeper via SMS of an impending temperature collapse and prompt them to take further countermeasures.

In principle, the honeycomb, which can be controlled from the outside, enables previously impossible insights into the behavior of the insects. “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 explore their survival mechanisms,” explains biologist Martin Stefanec from the University of Graz, one of the main authors of the study. It has been shown that the animals are not only warmed by the selective regulation of the heating, but can also be redirected to areas within the honeycomb that are richer in honey: “They need places with a specific temperature and move there by themselves,” says Stefanec. The collective behavior of the bees can thus be thermally controlled, Schmickl added.

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Optimized rearing

Temperature is an environmental factor that influences the life of honeybees to a large extent: “Many rules of bee society – from collective and individual interactions to the rearing of a healthy brood – are regulated by temperature,” Rafael Barmak from the EPFL also emphasized the importance of Heat regulation in the hive. The researchers therefore want to use the comb in the spring in the future – for a new purpose: During this time of year, the colony must grow rapidly through brood production in order to reach the critical mass for the survival of the colony. With the help of sensors, for example, the temperature in the honeycomb should be regulated and the rearing of the offspring should be optimized.

The “Hiveopolis” research project is coordinated by the Artificial Life Lab of the University of Graz and will be funded by the EU for five years – until March 2024 – with around seven million euros. Other partners are the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the Free University of Berlin, Bee Smart Technologies Sofia, Latvijas Biozinatnu un Tehnologiju Universitate and the Humboldt University of Berlin.


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