Biohybrid superorganisms: Combining robots and honeybee colonies

Rafael Barmak
PhD student
EPFL, Switzerland
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Robotic technologies have enabled interaction with living organisms and the formation of mixed societies of artificial and living agents. Biocompatible robots, equipped with sensing and actuation capabilities, represent a novel approach to studying collective behaviors, offering exploratory capabilities previously inaccessible with traditional methods. In this study, we designed a robotic system with an array of thermal sensors and actuators to investigate collective behaviors of the western honeybee (Apis mellifera). The system was integrated into a hive of approximately 4’000 bees for several months, allowing continuous collection of spatiotemporal thermal profiles of the colony when grouped in a winter cluster. Our robotic device reliably modulated the response of the superorganism to dynamic thermal stimulation, influencing the spatiotemporal structure of the cluster. Furthermore, after identifying the thermal collapse of a colony, we operated the robotic system in a “life-support” mode through its thermal actuators. Finally, our study demonstrated the autonomous closed-loop interaction capability of the robotic device with a cluster of thousands of individual bees. Such biohybrid societies open up new possibilities for studying collective behaviors of animals within a complete social context, while also offering potential applications for improving the survival of these important pollinators.