Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 | Author:

My recent visions include creating a Live Hive ™. A Live Hive ™ is a high-tech monitored beehive complete with internal, infra-red micro video cameras, chip-tagged bees, microphones to monitor hive audio, external camera to monitor comings and goings, temperature sensors, solar panel – all data fed live to schools around the world via the Internet – LIVE 24hrs. It’s a Real World Beehive Show. We need our young to observe bees, for the sake of their own survival. We can now computer-record thousands of hours of high quality audio without a problem, enabling us to observe the change in frequencies within the hive, which I believe is key to understanding honeybee health and intention. (UPDATE: oops… This cool hive webcam seems to have had my idea already!) Here’s a cool example technology below (not German).

Beehive Temperature Data Logger

Furthermore, undergraduate UNC student, Andrew Pierce, et al found that the queen doesn’t decide hive actions herself, but rather “older workers gave signals to the queen and to the rest of the colony that it was time to swarm and leave the hive. Later, they were able to observe inside the swarm itself and see workers give the queen a signal, known as ‘piping’ that tells her to fly.” (read: University of North Carolina at Charlotte) How did they do this?

Today I discovered a gem of an article published four years ago in Der Spiegel magazine from Germany (below) that lifts my hopes that my Live Hive ™ concept will become reality sooner.

In an experiment that’s the first of its kind worldwide, they are creating precise movement profiles for their winged subjects. To this end, tiny transponders have been attached to the backs of thousands of bees. Each radio chip costs one euro and is attached to the bee with a dab of shellac. The chip weighs only 2.4 milligrams, about one-thirtieth of the maximum load a bee can carry, and therefore doesn’t present much of a impediment to the insect.”

The gear exists on the consumer market, we just need to buy the parts off the shelf and deploy the Live Hive ™ in concert with thousands of observing students of all ages to give researchers feedback and notes to accelerate our open knowledge. Google’s computer array should be suitable drive space. Wikipedia that! Pollinatethis!

Finally, Richard C. Hoagland unearthed an interesting nugget about hive sounds in a beekeeper’s recording of a hive noise he heard twice, last back in 2006 – Hoagland played the sound on Art Bell’s radio show (part 9) during a show about Colony Collapse Disorder (along with a bunch more about torsion field energy, and theories that bees build “small cell” comb for the sake of frequency resonance improvement at smaller, natural sizes than with larger, human-prompted foundation size cells… He mentions nothing about mite survival rates in large vs small cell… I appreciated Bell’s critical interviewing.) Sort of funny to hear this guy Hoagland reading from BWrangler’s website on Art Bell’s radio show. Need to learn more about torsion field physics and hexagons. Dr. Adrian Wenner’s work on bee communication is noteworthy for this project, too… Has someone already created the Live Hive? Who wants to fund it for me?


Big Brother in the Beehive

By Hilmar Schmundt

Bees become increasingly intelligent as they age. They suffer from occupational diseases and travel astronomical distances to produce a jar of honey. Using state-of-the-art monitoring technology, researchers from the German city of Würzburg are revolutionizing our image of mankind’s third most-important working animal.

A snowstorm is raging outside the beehive. Inside, number 6085 is making herself comfortable at a cozy 25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit) and with an extra serving of sweet nectar.

6085 is a sprightly senior who spends her summers working outside. But for now she is a homebody, spending her time in a world almost entirely of her own making. Her fellow bees expend almost half of their energy making sure their hive is cozy and warm in the winter and pleasantly cool in the summer. The community strictly monitors family planning and carefully controls the intelligence of its offspring. 6085 lives largely sheltered from natural calamities that plague other creatures. Hunger and infirmity are a problem that haven’t plagued bees for over a million years.

“These living conditions sound like something out of a science fiction novel,” says neurobiologist Jürgen Tautz. The white-haired, 55-year-old sits in his office on the second floor of a converted house on the edge of an orchard within sight of the University of Würzburg campus. To convince his skeptical audience that number 6085 truly exists, he proposes an expedition into the exotic world of the bees. Tautz walks down a flight of stairs into his laboratory, where three experimental Plexiglas beehives have been constructed. The beehives even have names, written on paper labels — “Maja,” “Willi” and “Flip.” About a thousand honey bees are crowded into each beehive, including the worker bee identified as number 6085. The Plexiglas window to the hive is warm to the touch, especially near its center, where the royal household crowds around the queen with her long abdomen, making sure she is kept warm, well-fed and clean.

“Bees have achieved many of the things that remain the stuff of dreams for humans,” says Tautz, bright-eyed and speaking with a hint of a local dialect. “We can learn a great deal from them.”

Old bees are the smart ones

A tiny microchip enables scientists to track the habits of bees.

CREDIT: DDP / Fiola Bock / Beegroup Wuerzburg

CAPTION: A tiny microchip enables scientists to track the habits of bees.

The members of his 20-member research team routinely astonish the professional world with their articles in such highly-regarded professional journals as Science, Nature and Zoology. Peter Fluri, the director of the Swiss Center for Bee Research in Bern, is impressed by Tautz’s work. “The results coming out of Würzburg are remarkable,” he says, “and their significance extends well beyond the world of bee biology.”The “Beegroup” laboratory routinely dismantles theories previously regarded as scientific certainty. Until recently, for example, zoologists believed that during the famous tail dance, only those bees directly surrounding the ceremony are quickly informed about a source of nectar. However, the Würzburg researchers discovered that the dance is in fact a refined form of communication. When the collector bee discovers a source of nectar, she performs a sort of a tap dance, stamping her feet and producing a howling noise with her wing muscles resembling the sound made by an engine being revved in neutral. This produces vibrations in the wax of the hive, transmitting the information by a sort of floor-based radio system to other collector bees at more remote locations. “Bees use the hive as a sort of radio transmitter for important announcements,” says Tautz.

Here’s another surprising discovery: Bees use visual orientation — a feat that requires tremendous brain power — to accurately estimate their distance from a nectar source while in flight.

Bees also exhibit a wide range of intelligence levels. However, their intelligence is not determined by genetic factors, but rather by nutrition and by the prevailing temperature during hatching and development of the pupa. Tautz and his team have discovered that “hot bees hatched at 36°C (96.8°F) are significantly more intelligent than cold 34°C (93.2°F) bees.”

Many honey bees progress through a highly varied career path during their lives. They begin working as heaters, helping to ensure that the nest remains at a steady temperature, never varying more than half a degree. Then they become cleaners, nursemaids, hive builders, guards and finally collectors, the final stage in the lifetime career of a bee.

Jobs that involve working outside are the most difficult and dangerous, and therefore require the greatest amount of brainpower. The insects only possess this level of brainpower once they reach an advanced age. “Bees seem to have discovered a way to turn the infirmity that comes with age into a strength,” says Jürgen Tautz. “But we still don’t understand exactly how they manage to do this.”

The secret use of bee urine

Tautz modestly describes himself as a late-bloomer who only discovered his field in a roundabout way. As a young neurobiologist, he was initially interested in the nervous and sensory systems of crabs and sphinx moths, crickets and singing frogs. He only became what he calls “infected with the bee virus” at the age of 45. He was introduced to the field by his friend Martin Lindauer, a student of renowned bee researcher and Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch. “As a biologist, you would be making a mistake not to be studying bees,” Lindauer told him. The next day he showed up at Tautz’s door with a complete beekeeper’s kit.

That was ten years ago. Since then, the Beegroup headed by Tautz has developed into an internationally renowned institution that collaborates with chemists, epidemiologists and brain researchers. A portion of the laboratory’s operating costs are even covered by the laboratory animals themselves. The Beegroup’s 70 hives produce 50 kilos of honey a year, which is sold at market prices.

Tautz would like to see his infectious enthusiasm for bees spread to as many people as possible. The Beegroup cooperates with teams in other countries, including Japan, Russia and Australia. At the German Garden Exhibition in Munich, the Würzburgers plan to make a pared-down model of their bee laboratory accessible to the public. One of their programs will allow schoolchildren to become “bee godparents” and monitor the daily routines of “their” bees on the Internet. For example, they’ll be able to watch 6085 or one of her colleagues wake up to the first warm rays of morning sunshine, record how often they embark on a nectar-collecting trip and when they return to the hive to rest.

At a recent professional conference in Munich, Tautz delivered a keynote speech on the topic of material technology and microclimate in beehives, using a play on words, “Beeonics,” as the title of his presentation. He frequently gives tours of his laboratory to schoolchildren, beekeepers and high-ranking government officials. He has a penchant for telling children how dark-colored forest honey is made. It’s nothing but aphid urine, he tells them, licked up and regurgitated by bees, then packed into jars and sent to supermarket shelves — bon appetit!

“Everyone thinks bees are interesting, which makes public relations one of our easiest jobs,” says Tautz. That’s because Homo sapiens and Apis mellifera, the biological name for the honey bee, have had a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, for example, the bee, known as “bit,” was worshiped as a sort of Pharaonic heraldic animal.

Compiling bee biographies

Bees are not only fascinating, they also pay for their keep in honey production.


CAPTION: Bees are not only fascinating, they also pay for their keep in honey production.

Harvests of such useful plants as oilseed rape, which is normally pollinated by the wind, can be increased by up to 20 percent by using bees for pollination. “Economically speaking, bees are the third-most important working animal in Germany, next to cattle and pigs,” says Tautz. “When bees feel good, people are happy.”It also works the other way around. Two years ago, when parasites and infections decimated a third of the Bavarian bee population, new colonies were quickly brought in. Otherwise, says Tautz, fruit farming would have suffered. This makes it all the more difficult for him to understand just how much we continue to believe half-truths handed down through the generations. “Nowadays, almost nothing you read in schoolbooks is true anymore,” says Tautz. “We are simply investigating a few age-old questions, but with the latest technology.”

In fact, many forms of detailed observation have only become possible since Würzburg’s Beegroup began using state-of-the-art monitoring technology. In an experiment that’s the first of its kind worldwide, they are creating precise movement profiles for their winged subjects. To this end, tiny transponders have been attached to the backs of thousands of bees. Each radio chip costs one euro and is attached to the bee with a dab of shellac. The chip weighs only 2.4 milligrams, about one-thirtieth of the maximum load a bee can carry, and therefore doesn’t present much of a impediment to the insect.

Ever since the insects have been collecting both nectar and data, Beegroup’s researchers have, for the first time ever, been able to automatically compile thousands of individual bee biographies spanning entire life cycles, which can range up to eight months — just as in the case of winter bee 6085, a particularly long-lived specimen. “We have essentially converted beehives into ‘Big Brother’ containers,” says Tautz enthusiastically.

Most bees are stay-at-homes

Detailed recordings of bee flight, for example, have revealed that bees are even more industrious than commonly thought. To produce two kilograms of honey, the collector bees, as a group, fly a total distance that would extend from the earth to the moon.

But most bees are stay-at-homes. Only a small percentage of each colony is normally involved in collecting nectar, and even collector bees spend two to three hours at a time in the climate-controlled hive.

On the other hand, the most strenuous work is visible from the exterior. Heater bees enter empty breeding cells and feign sleep, but a glance through an infrared camera reveals that each bee, by vibrating its chest muscles at a rate of 200 twitches a second, produces 4 milliwatts of power. This heats the bee to a temperature of 43°C (109.4°F), a fever that would be fatal in human beings. In the heat of summer, however, they cool the nest by bringing in water droplets and beating their wings to evaporate the water.

The next project on the agenda of Würzburg’s scientist-beekeepers is to create a complete “glass bee.” A new type of wireless loop installed the beehive’s exit now records the comings and goings of individual bees. In the future, the researchers will be able to use the electronic doorman to catch individual bees so that they can prepare routine blood counts, for example. As little as a microliter of “hemolymph” is sufficient to analyze the health of a hymenopter, says Hans Joachim Gross, a retired professor biochemistry who does volunteer work for the Beegroup. His first blood analyses have already been sensational.

During the portion of their life they spend in the nest, bees’ immune systems operate at maximum capacity, because heat, close quarters and humidity increase the risk of infection. In contrast, the old collector bees have virtually no immune system, and are especially at risk for infection. “It’s a sort of occupational disease for them,” says Tautz.

Until now, this has had no impact on the colony as a whole. Throughout the 50 million years of honey bee evolution, sick outdoor worker bees have never presented a threat to the rest of the colony. If they happened to catch a viral infection, they would become disoriented, unable to find the nest, and fly around until they died.

Nowadays, however, in the age of intensive beekeeping, even disoriented collector bees carrying life-threatening diseases often come across foreign beehives by chance. Although they don’t have the necessary scent that would identify them to the hive, they often manage to beg their way into the nest, using a few drops of nectar as a “bribe.” “Today’s bees are experiencing a sort of miniaturized globalization,” says Tautz.

Intelligence nest for bees

Scientists are developing aptitude tests for bees to see how smart and healthy they really are.


CAPTION: Scientists are developing aptitude tests for bees to see how smart and healthy they really are.

Sometimes the researcher stands in front of the beehives in his own garden in the late evening, listening to their endless buzzing. Then he imagines how these tiny creatures miraculously manage to come together as a whole, as a super organism consisting of countless, highly simplistic individuals that together make up an incredibly complex single entity. Each individual bee has only about a million cerebral nerve cells. But when combined, a bee colony has about half as many nerve cells as the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons. Such philosophical musings usually dissipate by the next morning, when Jürgen Tautz examines the new sets of data generated overnight by the laboratory computer. Then he turns his attention back to more practical issues.Tautz’s latest idea is an “intelligence nest” for bees, a tool beekeepers could use to determine how lively — and how healthy — their colonies are. The concept calls for labelling the entry holes to the beehives with circles, triangles or rectangles and installing a monitoring system. The creatures are usually clever enough to repeatedly locate and return to the same entry hole, unless there is something wrong with them. In other words, the more triangle bees return home through circle or rectangle holes, the more unhealthy the colony is as a whole.

“Until now, most beekeepers were familiar with only two circumstances — either a bee colony was alive or it was dead. But bees are infinitely more complex than that,” says Tautz. With his electronically developed scholastic aptitude for bees, he now plans to cure beekeepers of their binary mindsets.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Category: CCD, Honey, My Journal
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One Response

  1. 1

    Jerry Bromenshenk of U Montana pioneered the concept of putting sensors in beehives and connecting them to dataloggers and even computers, but the bees will propolize anything unusual, so one has to install them with care.

    Tautz’s new book is very entertaining, but his claim

    “Until now, most beekeepers were familiar
    with only two circumstances — either a
    bee colony was alive or it was dead.”

    is not at all true about the beekeepers in our Co-Op in NYC, and I suspect that it is also not true about your local beekeepers in SanFran. It certainly is not true of German beekeepers where Tautz works – the education of German beekeepers is perhaps the finest on the planet.

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