Bots and the bees: time for that talk

Some people start to scream hysterically and adopt Indiana Jones manoeuvres as soon as they see that blur of black and yellow buzzing around the garden – they will try anything to escape the potential danger zone.

Yes, wasps and bees may sting you when you threaten them, but these insects are not just little pricks. Honey-bees actually have amazing cognitive abilities – especially considering the small size of their body and brain.

Scientists at the University of Sussex and Sheffield are now working together to make a model of the honey-bee’s brain – a project that will cost roughly 1.6 million Australian dollars.

Artist’s impression of a mechanical bee. Illustration by Mauricio Estrella. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The ultimate ambition is to create an autonomous flying robot, rather than one that operates using programmed instructions. The “bee-bot” would navigate like an actual bee – utilising the insect’s many sophisticated qualities and senses.

Honey-bees have an amazing ability to smell, which they use to discriminate odours of different flowers and communicate with other bees in the hive. In fact, its sense of smell is so good, that researchers in the United States have actually trained honey-bees to detect explosives and narcotics!

Honey-bees are also great navigators. Just like humans, they see colours, but the colours they see are slightly different – they can’t see red but they can see ultraviolet light.

They can also see polarised light. The ability to see polarised light and UV light makes it possible to see the sun, even in cloudy conditions.

Finally, using an internal clock, bees can calculate how far the sun has travelled, allowing them to very accurately navigate using the sun.

Imagine autonomous robots making use of the honey bee’s senses. They could be used in rescue missions or to automatically fertilise crops. Or they could be the start of the robot uprising… somebody call John Connor!

2 Responses to “Bots and the bees: time for that talk”

  1. Biomechanism says:

    It’s amazing how honey bees are frequently used in research studies, especially those related to the brain. Well, this is due to their exceptional cognitive abilities.

  2. Andrew Katsis says:

    I love bees, ever since I studied them for an experimental animal behaviour subject! We were looking at whether they preferentially use visual (landmark) or odour cues when navigating to a food source: turns out they prefer to use both, but the landmarks seemed to be the stronger stimulus.

    I also find it incredible that they can develop such complex navigational abilities given such a short lifespan. I’ve been navigating for 24 years, and I still got lost in a plantation last week (twice!). Robot bees sound awesome.