The 'bots and the bees

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Mike Christy A tiny number is placed on to the bumblebees with super glue after they have been frozen into a dormant state at the BioSciences West building on Wednesday afternoon.

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Graduate student Nhi Duong tags and measures bumblebees by freezing them into a dormant state and applying a tiny number with super glue on Wednesday. Her research is aimed at investigating the insects' division of labor in relation to body size.

The buzzing of busy bees may help UA researchers turn the ""hive mind"" into a model for computer engineering and even robots.


Experiments being conducted on Bombus impatiens bumblebees in the UA Dornhaus lab located in the Biosciences West building could be leading to advances in robotic technology.


""Building a robot like a human may be hard, but building a robot that's like an insect may not be that hard,"" said Anna Dornhaus, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who runs the social insects lab.


The complex organizational and communication skills that social insects such as bees or ants have, enable them to have productivity levels that are thousands of times beyond their individual capacity.


The lab is hoping to apply these traits in the fields of computer science and engineering to design systems that act like social insects, and to effectively organize and write software to develop robots.


""We try to compare social insects and their different methods of organization strategies, and we try to understand those in ways we can then program them into different computer programs and computer simulations to see if we can make different interacting programs to run more efficiently,"" ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral student Jennifer Jandt said.


The lab is forming hypotheses they hope to apply to technology based upon how the individual bees work together and produce functioning colonies.


""We are taking those rules and implementing them into computer simulations, which can extend to different areas of computer science,"" Jandt said.


Theater arts senior Gil Wasserman researches the correlation between special fidelity and division of labor among bees.


""The way social insects communicate is through this complex code of signals, external and internal, that trigger decision making,"" Wasserman said.


Once you find out how they work, you can apply that data towards technology, he said.


Jandt has studied Bombus impatiens bees for four years specifically because it is easy to acquire colonies of that species of bee and because the insects are small enough that they can accomodate large numbers in the lab.


The lab chose to study these bees as opposed to honey bees because the Bombus impatiens are easier to identify when analyzing how time, interaction and space affects the roles of individuals bees in the nest.


Students work in the lab on a volunteer basis and put in a minimum of 10 hours per week. They can also receive class credit for working.


Working with the bees can sometimes be tricky. Wasserman said that he does everything meticulously, out of fear of being stung.


""I saw a girl get stung six times in less than a minute,"" he said.


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