Robotic veterinarians for honeybees will help keep the insects alive.
By Jules Bernstein
f you think blueberries, cherries, or almonds are expensive, wait until you buy cranberries for Thanksgiving this year. They’re about to get much pricier, if you can get them at all. All of them are dependent on pollination by bees, as are about a third of the foods we put in our mouths. If honeybee colonies continue to die off at the current rate, much of our food supply will become extremely costly or cease to be produced in large quantities. Researchers report about 40% of U.S. honeybee colonies died between October 2018 and April 2019 — the highest winter loss in 13 years. This follows a pattern of decline. In 1947, the U.S. was home to 6 million honeybee colonies. Today, the number is less than half that amount, and it continues to drop.
To help stop this troubling trend, UC Riverside is developing an electronic early warning system to let beekeepers know when their hives aren’t healthy. This “robotic veterinarian” features first-of-its-kind technology, small sensors that will “smell’ and “hear” early signs of distress inside the hives. Though several sensor-based platforms for colony monitoring are already available, they all suffer from substantial shortfalls. Most of them only measure nonspecific variables such as temperature, carbon dioxide fluctuations, or colony weight. Such simple measurements don’t give beekeepers specific information about what might be wrong with their bees, or how to help them, according to UCR entomologist Boris Baer, who is leading the team developing this new technology.
“A fever on its own isn’t likely to tell a doctor what you have,” explained Baer, a professor of entomology and principal investigator for UCR’s Center for Integrative Bee Research. “There are multiple other indicators needed to determine what illness is causing the fever and what the right course of treatment should be. The same is true of a beehive.”
Scientists attribute colony collapses to a number of factors, including habitat destruction, pesticide exposure, parasites, pathogens, and climatic changes. The robotic vets will help beekeepers disentangle which of the stressors may be occurring in their hives. Sick bees smell different than healthy ones, and bees emit chemicals when they become infected with a pathogen or parasite. One such chemical, a so-called “suicide pheromone,” tells other bees that the diseased individual needs to be removed from the hive. Queens have a signature smell that diminishes when they’re stressed or when they die, and yet another scent can indicate hunger.
These scents are molecules that a sensor placed inside a hive can detect. Then, software can analyze and identify the molecules, and artificial intelligence can be trained to compare them with chemicals present in healthy beehives. The UCR team, which also includes Baer’s wife, pollination specialist Barbara Baer-Imhoof, has already identified a number of these molecules, collected five years’ worth of data from beehives, and is now working on building and testing prototypes. Baer believes the device will represent a quantum leap forward in protecting honeybees because it offers early indications of what’s wrong with a hive while it’s still treatable.
“Just as when a human has very late stage cancer, it’s likely considered too difficult to treat,” Baer said. “If we have a colony that collapses, it’s also too late.”
Barbara Baer-Imhoof, left, and Boris Baer at UCR’s Center for Integrative Bee Research apiary. (UCR/Stan Lim)