Category Archives: the bee laboratory

robot bee


After visiting the Koç University in Istanbul last february, I started thinking about links between haptic robotics research, neuroscience and the antenna’s of insects. Receptors, senders and receivers, input and output (but what is happening inbetween?). Stings, pheromones, poison, skin, reactions, multifaceted panoramic vision eyes, antennae with 3000 receptors, electrically charged fur for pollination purposes: examples of high tech nature and high technology. Besides its senses, let’s analyze the circadian rythm of the western honeybee to understand the functioning of the super organism in the best possible way.
Compound eyes with 6.900 small lenses, each representing a pixel in an image. Antennae, responsible for the smell function (in stereo!), 100 times more sensible compared to humans. A tongue that can unfold and extend till half of the body length. Wings beating at 230 times a minute, and folding back to adapt to small holes (in flowers). Mandibles for carrying, pincing, collecting and biting. Feet with hooks and pads. Legs with pollen baskets. And not yet spoken about the superorganisms communication methods. With pheromones (smell), vibrations and the famous waggle dance, the bodylanguage of the bees.
A profound study of the honeybees’ senses is needed if we want to come up with an innovative design that can compete with the sophisticated functioning of the organism.


During the second workshop week we installed 2 temperature sensors and a humidity sensor in the middle topbars of the brood chamber. There is also a combined temperature/humidity sensor hanging at the backside of the hive. The design of the bee monitoring system is able to log temperature and humidity inside the hive brood nest and measure temperature and humidity in the rooftop garden outside the hive.
All the sensors are connected to an arduino board, which is connected to the internet.
With this set up I can follow at any time the warming up and cooling down in the hive. Temperature and humidity inside and outside the hive are important indicators of hive health.
Some worker bees have a role as ‘heater bees’. They can dislocate their wings from their flight muscles and shiver with those large flight muscles to generate heat. These heater bees are easily identified in images taken by heat sensitive cameras because the temperature of their thorax can reach over 42°C degrees, contrasting with the normal temperature of the brood nest of 35 degrees Celsius. Even when the temperature outside is below freezing, the center of the hive can be 33 degrees.

pix: dead black bees on frames

If the outside temperature falls below 12°C, bees cannot fly and they will be confined to the hive. If the bees either run out of honey or it is so cold that they cannot crawl from the edge of their warm cluster to the honey (below 10 degrees C, they cannot move), they will starve or freeze.
This happened with our first beehive in 2009: a colony of native black bees (with pedigree) did not survive the harsh winter because their food sources were too far away from the bee nucleus. Too far was only 3 frames – but in a very cold winter every centimeter counts.

bees ‘fanning’ at the entrance of the hive, to cool down the temperature

Cooling in the hot summer is just as important. Wax softens if the hive temperature exceeds 35°C. Besides structural problems, this negatively impacts vibration-based communication between bees inside the dark hive. To cool down the hive the water-bees collect water and spread it over the comb. Bees also evaporate heat by mechanically creating air currents inside the hive to cool it down. Fanning bees at the entrance of the hive are performing this task.

Research suggests that temperature of the hive increases immediately before a swarm occurs and drops below ambient temperature at the time of the swarm itself. [paper …]
Humidity inside and outside the hive can influence how quickly the water in nectar is evaporated and transformed into honey. The bees try to maintain an average humidity value of 60% inside. The degree of humidity may also indicate environments that favor fungal growths that can devastate hives. This happens mostly in humid winters – (see chalkbrood).

pix: humidity graph

Graph representing the humidity values in the green monitored beehive over the season 2011-2012.
In the beginning of the graph there is some noise, but from october 2011 we see clearly that the bees maintian a rather constant value of humidity around 55%, there where the outside values are [onderhevig aan] much bigger changes.

pix: temperature graph

Graph representing the temperature values in the green monitored beehive over the season 2011-2012.
There are 2 temperature sensors installed left and right in the same topbar. The highest sensor values are closest to the honeycomb building and to the bee nucleus in winter.

bee anatomy


Honey bees have 5 eyes. Two compound eyes, these are made up of many hexagonal facets, meaning that they can simultaneously see all around them (above, below, side to side, infront). Like humans, bees are trichromatic, but whereas humans base their vision on red, blue and green, bees base their colour vision on blue, green and UV. This means that some colour combinations visible to bees, are not visible to humans. However, bees cannot see red, however, they do visit red flowers because they can see the UV patterns within the petals. And they also have three ocelli: these are simple eyes positioned on top of the head. These eyes are sensitive to light, and aid the bee in its orientation. The Proboscis is a long tongue which the bees use to suck nectar from flowers into the mouth. Antennae are vital for touch and smell. They are used for communication within a honey bee colony , for locating food, for sensing predators, and even aid flight.
The thorax is the anchor for the legs – the hind legs also featuring pollen baskets. The forelegs are used for cleaning the antennae. The thorax contains the flight muscles and salivary gland. There are 2 pairs of wings attached to the abdomen. The abdomen contains the honey stomach which enables the bee to carry about 75 mg of nectar from a flower back to the nest or hive. The sting is a modified egg laying organ. Only females are able to sting, and do so only when they feel threat of attack.

anatomy of the honeybee, honeybee anatomy
bee tongue bee legs

wax lateral


A honeycomb is a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by honey bees in their nests to contain their larvae and stores of honey and pollen.
The axes of honeycomb cells are always quasi-horizontal, and the nonangled rows of honeycomb cells are always horizontally (not vertically) aligned. Thus, each cell has two vertical walls, with “floors” and “ceilings” composed of two angled walls. The cells slope slightly upwards, between 9 and 14 degrees, towards the open ends. The hexagon tiles the plane with minimal surface area. Thus, a hexagonal structure uses the least material to create a lattice of cells within a given volume.
Another explanation is that the shape simply results from the process of individual bees putting cells together: somewhat analogous to the boundary shapes created in a field of soap bubbles. In support of this, he notes that queen cells, which are constructed singly, are irregular and lumpy with no apparent attempt at efficiency.
The closed ends of the honeycomb cells are also an example of geometric efficiency, albeit three-dimensional and little-noticed. The ends are trihedral (i.e., composed of three planes) sections of rhombic dodecahedra, with the dihedral angles of all adjacent surfaces measuring 120°, the angle that minimizes surface area for a given volume. The shape of the cells is such that two opposing honeycomb layers nest into each other, with each facet of the closed ends being shared by opposing cells.

bee-architects01wax lateral
voronoi diagram

The hive is a system of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the property of a system that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, constant condition of properties like temperature or pH. It can be either an open or closed system.
A medium sized nest needs 1200gr wax to be build, and 7,5 kg honey for the energy. Beeswax is composed of more than 300 different chemical components.
The vertical comb construction is parallel to the earth magnetic field, the bees can construct this way thanks to the gravity receptors (organs) that are situated in all their legs and body joints.

The bees’ body is the basic template for the construction of a wax cell. From a cylindrical form the cells become hexagonal under the tension of the regurlarly constructed comb and heated by the bees’ bodyheath (cfr. soap bubbles joining together). The wax wall of a cell is 0,07mm. The antennae of the bees measure the cells’ thickness.

The comb + wax is an integral and inseparable part of the colony as superorganism.
The comb is =>
Living space
Food storage
A skeleton
A sensory organ
A nervous system
A memory stare
An immune system

Functions of the comb =>
Telephone system
Information storage
Colony specific identity
Defense against pathogens
Nursery (center)
Storage & production ⇒ periphery
The nectar/honey is mixed with antibacterial and antifungal peptides and enzymes, before storage in the cells


Bees were very important in the daily life of ancient Egypt. The bee was an insignia of kingship associated particularly with Lower Egypt, where there may even have been a Bee King in pre-dynastic times. The bee was considered sacred by early Egyptians and often regarded as a symbol of resurrection. In Egyptian mythology the Sun God Ra created the honey bee from his tears. The bee, representing the word bit – meaning bee or honey in hieroglyphics, was used as a prefix to the throne name of Egyptian rulers. Bee stood for He of the Bee or King of Lower Egypt.


Diaper is the name given to a textile fabric, formerly of a rich and costly nature with embroidered ornament, but now of linen or cotton, with a simple woven pattern; and particularly restricted to small napkins. In architecture, the term “diaper” is given to any small pattern of a conventional nature repeated continuously and uniformly over a surface; the designs may be purely geometrical, or based on floral forms, and in early examples were regulated by the process of their textile origin. Subsequently, similar patterns were employed in the middle ages for the surface decoration of stone, as in Westminster Abbey and Bayeux cathedral in the spandrils of the arcades of the choir and nave; also in mural painting, stained glass, incised brasses, encaustic tiles, &c. Probably in most cases the pattern was copied, so far as the general design is concerned, from the tissues and stuffs of Byzantine manufacture, which came over to Europe and were highly prized as ecclesiastical vestments.


After a few workshops at Okno to develop the observation system, I start to monitor the development of a colony from its swarming dd. april 26 2011. The bees start building a new nest in the green beehive that is set up for the monitoring. The hive is located in the okno garden, about 3 metres from the window of the studio. Two webcams are installed in the middle frame of the brood box , in a small plexi box. If the web cams would not be protected, the bees would cover them with propolis. The camera’s send a steady stream of images, 1 per minute, via a PC board installed in one of the honey supers of the hive. The PC is connected to the internet via an ethernet cable. The purpose is to follow at any time the comb building and the growth of the colony. The images are continuously displayed on a large flat screen and can as well be consulted in real time via the internet.


The inside of the beehive is lit with an infrared led lamp for filming.
The bees are not disturbed by this red light. Their vision spectrum ranges from ultra violet (what a human eye cannot perceive) and it stops before red range – bees cannot see red.
We see the beginning of comb building after swarming. The bees start building from the left corner of the first frame. They construct several parallel layers of honeycomb. Over time they will expand the comb so that it covers the complete inside width of the hive.

The swarm organises itself to build a new home for the colony.


The enhanced beehive is a gateway to monitor a honeybee colony and its environment. Numerous possibilities for observing the bees’ behavior and important measured values from within the hive are provided as well as measuring data for the climate, soil, and vegetation in the honeybee colony’s direct environment. Storing all of the data over a period of several months allows not alone a very well detailed observation but also the ability to discover and follow long-term trends of complex relations between the superorganism and its environment.
The life in and around the hive is monitored by many measurement systems. Two webcams , equipped with infrared leds, make it possible to see in the dark. The monitor the movement of bees over the frames in the hive.
Since the hive was populated with a swarm (may 4th 2011), the 2 webcams record at 15 fps the life in the hive. Comb building, movements and action. In the top of the frames (in the hive body) there are 2 temperature sensors capturing the temperature in the beehive, as well as a CO2 sensor and a sensor recording the humidity in the hive.
Outside of the hive, the temperature and the humidity of the direct environment are also measured.
The webcams are connected to a PC board that is configured as a streaming server. It makes the images of the hive in real time available on the internet. The data from the different sensors are also logged and available in realtime.


Bee Monitoring Research in the OpenGreens. We organise a series of workshops to develop non-intrusive bee monitoring systems.
Bee Monitoring Workshops is a series of workshops in which we try to understand the distributed intelligence of honey bee colonies : their behaviour, ecology and sociobiology. By monitoring the bees and beehives with all kinds of sensors, we study the colony (as a community) and its relation to the urban environment. We will document this research with all kind of media (photo, film, audio, text, code) and we will use the extracted data to make artworks based upon the bees behaviour over time. We try to connect nature and technology in a new relationship of interconnections.
During 2 workshops in february and march 2011, we discussed a digital survey of the honeybees.
Beekeepers, artists and engineers joined their knowledge to come up with a design that offers a realtime, online monitoring of the beehive.
A swarm was put into the hive on may 4th 2011. Since than 2 webcams record the colonies’ behaviour. Simultaneously the data of inside and outside temperature, humidity and Co2 level are logged.