Robots could save the bees, HubWeek researchers say

Russ Tedrake (left) and Noah Wilson-Rich (right) answer audience questions at the 2019 HubWeek event "Deep Dive: Food, Bees, and Robots." Seaport, Boston, Mass., Oct. 2, 2019. Sabrina Schnur/BU News Service

By Sabrina Schnur
BU News Service

Two researchers stood in front of an audience of more than 50 people at HubWeek Wednesday afternoon explaining how science and robots could help save the bees someday soon.

Noah Wilson-Rich, chief scientific officer with The Best Bees Company and Russ Tedrake, vice president of robotics research at the Toyota Research Institute within MIT, showed a previously unseen chart of bee populations in various climates, and explained how groundbreaking automation is being introduced to save hives.

Beehive vitality has declined drastically in the last year, Wilson-Rich said, due to federal policy decisions such as a cut in USDA funding and the reintroduction of neurotoxins in pesticides. In the last year, 41.4% of beehives in the U.S. died off, he said.

“This summer we lost more bees than ever before. The crisis has gotten worse,” Wilson-Rich said. “Imagine if we lost 41.4% of all people in the US last year, and if those were the food-producing people.”

Despite the cut in funding, bee rescuers, like The Best Bees Company, have partnered with a handful of organizations, including NASA, Harvard and MIT, to collect data on where bees go, and how they can use machine learning to protect hives.

Chips inside the hive that create a “smarthive,” as Wilson-Rich called it, will record hive health to share with other beekeepers in that network. 

Researchers have begun working with local beekeepers nationwide to test Buzz, an app where beekeepers can see real-time information on how their hive is doing and be alerted to any potentially dangerous changes within the hive. 

“If there’s an infection, there’s medicine in a little component in the smarthive that can release,” Wilson-Rich explained. “It will have an ion trap spectrometer that can detect pesticide levels and open a vent. It can communicate to the beekeeper by text, email or phone call when the temperature is dropping in winter so that the bees don’t freeze to death.”

He admitted the hive’s technology is limited for now, but the focus has been on weight, temperature and humidity to keep the hive healthy. 

Bee pollination is a $100 billion industry worldwide, Wilson-Rich said, but the best part about beekeepers is their intrinsic motivation to help their hives.

“Beekeepers don’t operate with financial incentives,” he said. “They do it for the love of the bees. They want their bees to survive and they want honey production.”

Recent research has shown that many local bees are on the decline, with one New England bee already on the endangered species list. Of the 20,000 bee species in the world, Wilson-Rich said honeybees’ massive population decline is a terrifying omen for other species. 

“We focus on the honeybee to tell us what’s happening,” Wilson-Rich said. “Their population is in such crisis.”

In the meantime, Wilson-Rich encouraged residents to help to plant their own gardens, create nests for bees and report any sightings of bees near them.

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