What’s the Buzz?
Imagination takes wing
The common metaphor for an animal that can warn people of impending danger is “the canary in the coalmine.” A somewhat more current and global version might be “the bees in the hive,” for honeybees may be sending us signals about climate change that we are not yet able to decode. “Bees are very clever,” says Canan Dagdeviren, Ph.D., LG Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, who leads MAS’s Conformable Decoders research group. “They can communicate with themselves and others by changing their antennas to different frequencies. Researchers have studied this using cameras at a stationary location near the hive, but that has not proven to be an effective way of understanding behavioral phenomena in bees, as they emerge from the individual to the collective level in mobile swarms.”
Dr. Dagdeviren is interested in exploring how changes in temperature, humidity, and access to food—all symptoms of worsening climate health—impact communication among bees. To measure this, she has designed a conformable sensor tag that will be attached to the bee at the intersection of the thorax and wing. The tags will be small and light so as not to impact the host’s behavior, and will use thin-film piezoelectrics in lieu of a cumbersome power source. Attaching them will be a delicate matter but she hopes to run her study with tens, but not more than 100, outfitted bees. And that’s just the first part of this effort.
“There are three pillars to our project,” she says. “One is the sensor tag for the bee. The second is a surface acoustic waveform (SAW) sensor, which is the hardware on the tag that allows signals to be sent wirelessly. Last is the software that will allow computer scientists we are collaborating with to combine and collect that information and process the data.”
“The ability to monitor bees in their natural habitat provides an edge in studying swarm intelligence, enabling us to pose previously unanswerable questions: Is each bee as valuable as the next? What behavioral traits decide its role in the colony? How do individual bees respond to adverse stimuli?”
Multiple ways to get stung
This project will be the first endeavor of Dr. Dagdeviren’s lab outside of human health and wellness. While most biological research starts with animals and then proceeds to humans, her lab is doing the reverse. “While we have successfully deployed piezoelectric-based sensors for targeted medical interventions involving the human brain heart, stomach, and limbs, designing wearable sensors for bees—an organism of which we have little to no understanding of its physio-behavioral response—is a new challenge for us, which makes it unattractive to traditional grant sources,” she says. “Additionally, few attempts have ever been made in the field to attach SAW sensors on conformable substrates, as even rigid ones face significant fabrication challenges. Our project requires not only novel sensor designs but also the development of new fabrication tools and approaches, so we have quite a hill to climb.”
From bees to the seas
Aside from increasing our understanding of swarm intelligence, especially in the face of climate change, results from this ambitious project could impact diverse fields, such as biology, economics, urban planning, and, in analyzing collective behavior in the face of stress, human resource management. It could also influence the traditional focus of Dr. Dagdeverin’s lab: human health and wellness.
“If we are successful in developing and applying these sensors, it will inform our ability to make customizable devices for other animals—including humans—and plants. For example, we don’t have a good way to study plant health at the bottom of the ocean. We could make devices that can be implanted on plants, while the miniaturization of this technology could allow us to attach them to blood vessels or stem cells.”
The impact of this project will also be felt by Dr. Dagdeviren herself. “It will knock down one of my curiosities; at the same time it will also push my limits,” she says. “Professionally, it will add to the knowledge in my portfolio, bring another dimension to my work, broaden the scale of living things I can work with, and show my students that we can change research direction and get benefit out of it.”