Tracking down the secrets of bees with technology
Nature and technology are usually perceived as opposites. Many people think that technology distances man from nature. Thomas Schmickl, a zoologist from Graz, has a more versatile view. For him, man is a part of nature and his creative works are just as natural as the web of a spider, the cocoon of a butterfly caterpillar or the honeycomb of a honeybee. With his team, he seeks useful and nature-friendly uses for technology, an approach often called "technology for good". In his lab, research ranges from environmental monitoring of lakes with compostable robots to digital technology in beehives.
Today, our environment is burdened by many stressors at the same time, so monitoring and supporting nature can be an important task for technology, but it has to be targeted and used wisely. Environmental degradation and pollution affects many species, but all pollinator species are hit particularly hard. Their large numbers and their shared life centralised in the hive make honeybees the ideal first candidates for research into how technology can meaningfully support the animals themselves, but above all the ecosystem in which they live.
In doing so, the zoologist is by no means following the train of thought of dystopian science fiction series, such as Black Mirror, because the aim is not to replace honey bees with robots, but quite the opposite: natural, healthy bees are to be supported so that they can continue to perform their pollination services well. The technology is embedded in the hive, it continuously monitors the bees and provides additional information or energy to the bees when needed. To this end, the brightest minds in the relevant research fields across Europe have come together to form a collaborative team of experts, currently pursuing three main goals of their research together in two international EU projects, HIVEOPOLIS and ROBOROYALE:
1. Novel research methods: state-of-the-art mechatronic (robotic) tools are being developed that offer completely new possibilities for bee research, e.g. round-the-clock observation of the queen bee with all her social contacts in unprecedented resolution and accuracy. Only if we continue to research the phenomenon of the honey bee will we be able to protect it in the long term. No other pollinating species is as complexly organised as the honey bee, which makes high-tech a powerful tool to decipher the mechanisms of the bees' complex self-organisation.
2. Ecological education: technology can make the impressive inner workings of the hive accessible without disturbing the bees, in any weather, at any time of day and over long distances. In this way, people who would otherwise have little contact with bees can gain new insights and thus establish a relationship with the animals. In the process, they can learn a lot about nature and ecology and perhaps even become active in research themselves as "Citizen Scientists". In this way, bees, and thus ecology, can come into all classrooms with little effort and free of charge and allow a valuable added value and new pedagogical approaches in many subjects (biology, physics, computer science, mathematics, ...). Thus, this technology can become a gateway to real transdisciplinary learning about nature and the environment.
3. Fair society: the basis of every ecosystem is plants, and many of them depend on pollination by animals, the pollination of these plants by the honey bee is an important part of our food security. Healthy food, fruit and vegetables in particular, can quickly become more expensive due to a lack of pollinators. A healthy, green diet should not become a scarce commodity or even a luxury good in a just society. So here, sensibly applied technology can not only support and stabilise entire ecosystems, but directly benefit a fair and sustainable society. Bees do this for us.
If we all work together, we can interrupt the current downward spiral in nature and steer the dynamic in a better direction. Pollinator protection is mostly bee protection, and ultimately nothing other than classic nature conservation. For when nature is doing well, all living things do well. So let us do without harmful technology, such as autonomous lawn robots, let us plant meadows instead of golf course lawns, let us buy our food consciously, and let us think about how we can use modern technology sensibly so that we can also afford these saving measures and there is enough for everyone. We will need them to turn the tide and allow nature to breathe again.
More about the Bee Research at the University of Graz
Thomas Schmickl, University of Graz