Robot honeybees can steer hives to safer flowers.

MIT Technology Review offers a strange solution to a serious problem. They’ve got robot bees who can dance inside a bee hive to direct workers to pesticide-free flower patches:

After working in the field of swarm robotics for several years—using nature to inspire robots—[Thomas Schmickl, leader of the Artificial Life Lab at Austria’s University of Graz] decided to flip his work around and design robots to help nature, a concept he calls ecosystem hacking.

He’s focusing on bees. Honeybees and other pollinators face habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and other challenges, and Schmickl believes that coming to their aid could help strengthen entire ecosystems. Already, some companies offer augmented beehives that monitor conditions inside, or even robotically tend the bees. Now Schmickl and his colleagues want to go a step further and use technology to manipulate the insects’ behavior.

Hiveopolis collaborator Tim Landgraf, a professor of artificial and collective intelligence at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, is working on another kind of tool for these hives: a robotic dancing bee.

When real honeybees return from foraging, they perform a distinctive “waggle dance” that communicates the location of the food. Other bees join in the foragers’ dances, and when enough bees are doing the same dance, they’ll fly out to find the food. “It’s a sort of opinion polling process,” Schmickl says.

In earlier research, Landgraf built a robot that could perform a waggle dance so convincing that other bees followed it—and, at least sometimes, flew in the direction the robot suggested. Now he’s getting ready to test an improved version of the waggle robot and find out whether it can guide honeybees to a food source. The robot doesn’t look very bee-like to a human eye. Its body is simply a small, flexible tube with a fluttering “wing.” But it’s connected to a motor outside the hive that can steer and shimmy it across the hive’s dance floor.

You can read more about the Hiveopolis project here.