Berlin is abuzz with mechanical 'robot' bees
June 28th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Berlin is abuzz with mechanical 'robot' bees

By Christopher Cottrell, Special to CNN

Berlin, Germany (CNN) - Its brain is the size of a pinhead, but that doesn't stop the common honeybee from knowing basic geometry.

Widely regarded as one of the most intelligent insects on the planet, bees can use their mathematical prowess to communicate the exact location of nearby food to their hivemates via a technique dubbed the "bee dance."

It is the only known instance of symbolic communication in the animal kingdom and today a group of scientists in Germany is trying to build a robot that mimics it.

Dr. Raul Rojas, director of Berlin's Free University's Project RoboBee (yes, it's really called that),  is trying to “hack the system” of the bees’ cognitive processes by constructing a mechanical bee capable of luring real ones out of the hive and leading them to food.

“When the bee dances, it waggles," Rojas said while trying to demonstrate the motion of a bee shaking its abdomen back and forth with his hands. “It also moves its wings, producing a sound, and makes a run in a certain direction before coming back and doing it all again.”

Rojas and his team are building on the legwork of Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, an Austrian ethologist who spent decades researching insect communication. In the 1940s, von Frisch became the first person to decode the bee dance.

The crucial factors of the “bee dance” (see the video below; note: those aren't robots) are the angle at which the bee shimmies down the side of the hive and the dance’s duration, Rojas said. The duration is proportional to the distance at which food is located from the hive, while the angle tells the other bees which direction they have to fly in once they leave the hive.

So if a bee performs its dance at a 45-degree angle at 8 a.m., for example, when the sun is in the east, other bees know to fly roughly east-southeast.

“From a cognitive point of view, it's an amazing process," said Tim Landgraf, a graduate student who works with Rojas at the university's biorobotics lab. “The thing is, this super small bee has a brain the size of a pinhead.”

Rather than the furry, white mice that are the usual martyrs of scientific progress, Landgraf set his sights on bees after attending a lecture by Dr. Randolf Menzel, one of Germany's leading apian scholars.

Menzel "was still super curious and really seemed to like what he was doing," Landgraf said of the 72-year-old neurobiologist who is also involved in Project RoboBee. "So I asked him for a thesis and - zap! - I was working on detecting and tracking bee antennae in videos."

Using their own bee look-alike - a small wad of foam wrapped in thin plastic and connected to a meter-high contraption of metal, plexiglass and computer wiring - Landgraf and his colleagues are able to perform their own ”bee dance” via remote control.

"What we are trying to do with the robots is replicate the bee dance by making the same movements, the same sounds,” Rojas said, adding that they have even tried injecting sugarwater into the foam tip to trick the bees into thinking they smell nectar.

By sometimes omitting one of these factors - be it wing movement, scent or heat - the team comes closer to identifying the essential stimuli of the bee dance. The hard truth is that despite the progress they’ve made in identifying various components of the bees’ communication, they have yet to determine just how follower bees are able to decode the information in the dance.

Bee hives are dark inside, a fact that disqualifies any visual stimuli. So the dance, and all the encoded information it contains, must be communicated via stimuli that doesn’t rely on any visual signals.

Skeptics argue that bees don’t communicate direction or distance at all - that their dance is simply a way to get the other bees excited and convince them to follow the dancing bee out of the hive. Others say it's the smell of nectar on the dancing bee's body that attracts the other bees.

Landgraf says these theories are likely incorrect because of the visible correlation between the direction in which the bee dances inside the hive relative to the location of food outside.

“I can’t think of a better way [to come up with an answer] than building a robot,” Rojas said.

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Lyle Braverman

    Most people will have some problem with allergies or allergic reactions at some point in their lives. Allergic reactions can range from mild and annoying to sudden and life-threatening. Most allergic reactions are mild, and home treatment can relieve many of the symptoms. An allergic reaction is more serious when severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) occurs, when allergies cause other problems (such as nosebleeds, ear problems, wheezing, or coughing), or when home treatment doesn't help.

    June 7, 2013 at 1:47 am | Reply
  2. brandon

    what if they sense the smell, approach to see if there is any news. They all listen for sound to get near, and then feel with their feet and their antennae. They sense the vibrations as well with the wings

    May 2, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  3. Jeff

    I wonder if they have studied high-speed video/film of these bees and seen any correlation between the actual number of "shimmy-shakes" and the distance to the food or some other relationship. Without having any more exact "counting" mechanism than what can be seen in the video, it does seem like the dancing bee is performing a fairly constant set of shimmies with a pause in the middle. Can the bees "count" these gyrations and interpret the number or combination before and after the pause in the middle as being useful information?

    February 22, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
  4. Chrispy

    Its kinda like the terminator except in bee form.

    January 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  5. Magoo

    I like to consider myself a bee too because I like to pollenate flowers where ever I go.

    November 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  6. rachelcisto

    Reblogged this on relativelyclever and commented:
    Very cool. I happen to be a fan of robots myself.

    June 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • jimmy

      These are not robots, but little more than puppets. Read carefully, and you'll see there is no intelligence inside the fake bees. They are controlled entirely from without. Mere drones, if you'll excuse the pun.

      August 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  7. Rich

    Couldn't the bee just be 'splashing' the scent on as many hive members as possible and then getting them to follow? The more bees with the scent, the better chance for others to track and even more to follow the bees that have been 'splashed on'? If there is no visual cues, it would seem that smell is the only sense with permanence. Direction means nothing in the dark, feeling vibrations only tells the others to move closer and be 'splashed' upon. The scent is spread and tagged by shaking it off like a dog shakes off water. (You're welcome ;-). )

    June 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
    • Chad

      Disagree, If i had to form a conclusion, my guess would be they communicate direction and distance via sound. The buzzing created by the wing movement, combined with movement in the direction of food, combined with relative distance based on distance of the "dance" would easily direct bees to the desired location. They idea that smell would be the primary trigger does not seem plausable to me as it gives no indication of location.

      August 21, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • Jaireflavia

      Bee: I see. Thanks! I am sure it works but I guess I'll try it later... I just preferred not hnviag to open another account (and give out my email again) somewhere else just to bookmark something on one website, but I'll be more tempted to do it when there are more posts on hellobee in the future.

      April 9, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  8. Honey

    Bees. The next biological weapon!

    June 29, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply
    • Carlos

      Welcome to Beekeeping. It appears we have sttaerd within 2 weeksof each other, as well as, we both are starting with two hives.I see someone is wrapped up for the bee wars. Let's bounce off each other and monitor our hives progress.I'm in northern Alabama, the weather does make a difference.Brought my swarms up from 80 and humid to 50 s and wet.Was worried a bit if they'd hang in there.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:31 am | Reply
  9. SMW

    I, for one, welcome our new robot bee overlords.

    June 29, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  10. Name*beetadti

    that's great how many times because god's plan is trying to be decoded

    June 29, 2012 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • Sunshine

      What ARE Cross Bees? My brother talks about them not hainvg stingers but they bite. Is this true? Do they still produce an allergic reaction in some people? Do they still produce honey? Can we buy them? Hoping you answer Thank you if you do!Annette

      October 21, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
    • bnumfsj

      ekq6On ukspepecpens

      October 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  11. professor samuel

    Wuts next...rapping bees? lol They ought a make a video of bees dragging their knuckles around stage while singing that cRap muzic and drinking their fortys and smoking grape flava blunts. You hear me gmoney hoodwink thuglife wanna bees punk a$$ skidmark undie wearing biatches? Suk my big phat mexican k o c k esseys

    June 29, 2012 at 1:58 am | Reply
    • Judas Priest

      Clearly the only 'fat' part you have is your spongy soft, microcephalic skull. You can't even read a short article. Who are you to criticize anyone, for any reason?

      June 29, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
    • Jim

      I stopped paying attention at "Wuts."

      June 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Ryan


      July 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  12. Ryan

    Bender did it first.

    June 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
    • Anex

      LOL! I was thinking the same about the episodes with the space bees and Bender xD

      July 2, 2012 at 5:41 am | Reply
  13. -[_:(|]

    ...resistance is futile...

    June 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  14. Brooks Bee Farm

    While the "bee dance" does convey the location of a nectar/pollen source, things are a little more complicated. These bee's doing the dance are scouting bees. The item that is most often over looked during this process, is that the dancing bee is not cleaned. This means they still have pollen stored in their pollen baskets on their legs and nectar that has not yet been regurgitated into comb. While the bee is dancing, the other bee's will sample the pollen and nectar (the process is called trophallaxis). If the food source is the best quality of the stuff brought in by the scouts, then the main field force will work the bloom source. An important thing to note is that depending on the needs of the hive, bees will focus mainly on pollen, nectar or both. Unless the robot can bring back in food stuffs there is little hope to guide bees to food.

    One possible solution to this dilemma, is to attach a synthetic nasnov pheromone to the robot, then the majority of the hive will follow it, believing it is time to swarm.

    The bees dont need light to see the food source dance. Their legs do their hearing/seeing for them. The subgenual organs on their legs pick up the slightest vibration or oscillation in air pressure. (This is why they hate lawnmowers and tractors and pretty much anything that idles, this is aside from hating C02 emissions).

    June 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  15. Stephan Daudt

    I remember hearing that bees can see in the infered. If that is true then they can see body heat inside the hive. Would a cold robot be able to dance so that the bees could "see" it?

    June 28, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • MCA

      Well they did say that heat was one of the factors but that may just been environmental and not the heat of the robot.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • jimmy

      They can certainly see ultraviolet, and many flowers have ultraviolet patches around their interesting bits. This will turn out to be far more complicated than they imagined.

      August 17, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • Magda

      Bill! Hope all is well in Pennsylvania. What are you doing at PSU these days.I went back to school and have now joeind the ranks of unemployed PhDs as I look for a teaching position. In the meantime, I'm on a fellowship working on a second book. Can't complain!Hope your family is all well. Best to them all. I can't tell you how often I think of camping in your field, picking berries, playing w/ Bandit, .Family is all well, all over the map. Joe is in Oklahoma, Art California, Kevin New York, Rosie Germany, everyone else is somewhere in Pennsylvania.Should you find yourself in Charlottesville, let us know!

      August 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.