Attack of the Robobees! A Mechanical Bee Tests Its Wings

Honey bees do a little movement called the waggle dance to alert each other to new food sources. Can a robot learn the boogie?

The humble honey bee is thought to have one of the most complex communication systems -- some even go so far as to call it a language -- of any animal. A bee who has found a rich food source can fly back to her hive, communicate to other bees the exact location of the food, and a few minutes later her nestmates will head out directly to her find.

How does she do it? Bees communicate through a series of movements called the "waggle dance," first described by Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch. Scientists understand some of the basic mechanics of the dance, but in order to tease out its subtleties a group of researchers at the Free University of Berlin are working on a robotic bee. If the researchers can figure out the waggle dance, their little robot will be able to communicate with the real bees about a new food source. The singularity is near! (For bees.)

The waggle dance follows something like a figure-eight pattern. The middle part of the eight (called the waggle run) is oriented relative to gravity at the same angle the bees should fly relative to the sun in order to get to the food. The speed of the dance is thought to communicate the distance. It's basic geometry: Once the bees know the angle to fly and the distance, they can find the food.

But it's turned out to not be so simple. So far, the dancing robotic bee has not been able to successfully communicate the location of a new food source, according to a new paper in PLoS ONE. The scientists list a couple of possible reasons: For starters, the robot can't seem to get enough other bees to pay attention to its dance for long enough, perhaps because of a lack of buzzing wings (whose role in the waggle dance is unknown), sufficient body heat, or legs for creating vibrations in the honey comb. It's also possible that chemicals on robot are off-putting to the other bees.

The whole project is like a Turing Test for bees. If one day the robobee gets her point across, and the other bees come to accept her as one of their own, who's to say she's not a real bee?

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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