the bee laboratory

0. intro

As media-artist and beekeeper I study since several years the tight interaction between honeybees and urban ecosystems. Urban bee populations function and evolve in accordance with the human activities developing around them. The honey an urban colony produces differs depending on the flowers we plant and the garbage and pollution we produce.
My preoccupations with bees come partly from a fascination with these amazing insects: the way their bodies look and function, they way they organize their complex societies, and the way they explore their environment.

But I have also another motivation. In many industrialised nations, bee colonies are now threatened. There are many causes - amonst them pesticides and parasites - but the compromised state of the foraging areas for bees is just as worrisome. So I work also towards an improvement of the environment of bees with the creation of urban gardens and guerilla planting.
Moreover, because bees reflect the health of their surrounding ecosystem and the cumulative effects of different pollutants, I use them as bio-indicators to make citizens aware of the increasingly negative effects of our life styles and methods of industrial production.


1. observation set ups

For many years now, I have been creating experimental set-ups using sustainable beehives that have been augmented with sensors and sensory processing algorithms to analyse the state of the colony, the quality of pollen and propolis and the behavior of the bees. These beehives are progressively linked in a European-wide network and the data is being made available online.
Together with a group of engineers, computer scientists, artists and beekeepers I created in 2011 the Green Beehive at Okno. This was a Dadant Blatt beehive that we enhanced with sensors and camera facilities.
In 2013 I initiated the OpenSourceBeehives project in Barcelona. Together with the Fab Lab from the IAAC architecture institute, we set up a test station on the premises of Valldaura Self Sufficient Labs. We installed also several Warré beehives at our headquarters in Brussels.

Focus on Transparent Beehive:
April 2012 I have built the Transparent Beehive, which was operational for 1 year. The Transparent Beehive was located in a small laboratory at OKNO, our artist studio. It was connected to Okno's urban rooftop garden.
The inside of the Transparent Beehive was equipped with temperature and humidity sensors and with a webcam. These data were related to the temperature and humidity in the garden and to the number of bees leaving the hive to forage for pollen and nectar.

The Transparent Beehive was inspired by the book beehive designed by François Huber in 1780. I adapted the book-beehive to the standards of a modern library archive. The frames were mounted on sliders, easy to open for inspecting the hive or for looking after the queen. I like the metaphor of 'reading the development of a colony by browsing through a book'. I want to set up a real collaboration with the bees.

The Transparent Beehive is one of my observatories to study how a bee colony evolves. Contact microphones are embedded in the hive and its comb frames, and the bees' activities are recorded on 12 mono audio channels. The final -slow art- output creates a 3D sound-scan of life in the hive. It is complemented with additional measurement of internal temperature and humidity and external measurements of climate, soil and vegetation. Storing the data over a 12 months period provides very detailed observations and it allows us to discover and follow long-term trends in the complex relations between the colony and its environment.

2. monitoring: sensors, data transmission and visualisation

monitoring equipment: bee monitoring and big data sets
Complex systems analysis and machine learning are needed for detecting these patterns and to allow prediction and the shaping of ongoing social and biological processes, and to develop novel user interfaces that are needed to make embedded technologies accessible and usable without requiring sophisticated background or training.

Two temperature sensors and a humidity sensor are installed in the hive. There is also a combined temperature/humidity sensor placed outside in the rooftop garden to measure the environmental information. The monitoring system is logging all these data. The sensors are connected to an arduino board, which is linked 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.

In the open database we track, annotate and share our visual findings. Here we see the timeline of a 365days monitoring video. The webcam was placed in the beehive together with a new bee swarm, and recorded the bees' actions over 1 bee year. Two temperature sensors and a humidity sensor were also installed in the hive. A combined temperature/humidity sensor was placed outside in the rooftop garden to measure the environmental information. The monitoring system was logging all data, which were sent in real time to the internet. This set up allows us to follow up at any time the health of the bee colony.

3. the Transparent Beehive

But the real focus of the Transparent Beehive was to study the behaviour of the bees and to link the development of the colony to the sound it produces. Therefore I installed 8 contact microphones in the frames of the beehive.
When I populated the Transparent Beehive with a swarm, the bees started to fill the frames with comb and slowly they covered the empty hive with tens of thousands of wax cells to store the nectar and the pollen they brought back from their foraging flights. The center frames were reserved for the queen to lay eggs and for the young bees to raise the brood.

Social insects are a crucial element in our ecosystem. The study and monitoring of the honeybees allows for experimentation with couplings between nature and technology. I like the metaphor of 'reading the development of a colony by browsing through a book'. I want to set up a real collaboration with the bees. I introduce them to the public as performers.

4. relation to the environment

The hive was connected to the outside world with a plexiglass tube, which was linking the top of the beehive with the upper window in the lab. Tube = foraging bee counter.

Bees are a means for exploring how humans interact with and understand nature. As an urban ecologist, I want to study the link of the honeybees to the environment. The bees' overlapping foraging areas create ecological corridors throughout the city. By hacking rooftops and transforming them into urban gardens, I am experimenting with new forms of sculpting the public space. It generates a form of site-specific art intended to provoke change. Ecological corridors in urban environments are a new medium of social sculpture, a Gesamtkunstwerk that relies on the creative participation of many.

I have set out several urban test fields in the Brussels' Canal Zone. This area features diverse activities: from community gardening and urban agriculture to accidental nature, interspersed between industrial buildings, office zones and living areas. My test sites are connected by the flight routes and foraging activities of the bees. They create a green corridor in the city.

How can we study the differences between a biological corridor and the rest of the city? The honeybee colonies forage in a radius of 3 kilometers around their beehive. They fly on their own airborne roads back and forth from their collecting jobs and bring a sense of rural to the urban environment. I analyse the pollen that the bees bring back from their foraging trips, and compare them with existing scientific databases. With this information I can determine and map the melliferous plants in the green corridors and monitor the evolution of the plant diversity. Complex systems analysis and machine learning techniques can detect patterns to predict ongoing social and biological processes.


Development of an Intelligent Beehive: biomimicry, smart skin, biodegradeble sensors & actuators, renewable powering by organic materials, in-hive stress test, models for predictions, machine learning, feature extraction, interaction with the environment

5. new hive designs

Smart skins inspired by nature
I want to populate cities with a network of intelligent ‘guerilla-beehives’. These beehives should offer shelter to bee colonies 'in the wild' - rather than force bees into artificial apiaries. The bee colony should be able to thrive without the help of a beekeeper. The main target of guerilla-beehives is pollination and thus preservation and remediation of biodiversity.

I imagine a world where biological fabrication replaces traditional manufacturing and thus where new sustainable beehives can be generated simply by growing them. The design of such beehives will be inspired by art forms from nature and so I am searching the scientific literature to find the requirements for an ideal honeybee nest and create physical prototypes using smart and organic materials.

6. bio-degradable sensors

A guerilla beehive is intended to function completely independently. I want to equip them with biodegradable sensors that make distant, non-intrusive monitoring possible. The hives therefore do not need to be opened and bees do not need to be disturbed to monitor the colony. The audio- and visual data can be aggregated, processed and shared in real time over the internet.
I believe that the sensors can be powered by solar energy or microbial fuel cells and I am collaborating with scientists to make this possible. The whole system is set up as a fully organic project: cradle to cradle.
If the bees decide to leave the hive in search for another home, the hive (with its integrated electronics) will bio-degrade and compost completely.

DIY bio-based electronics. A temperature sensor (thermistor) consisting of a biological semiconductor, melanin, which is synthesized by bacteria from yeast of kefir.

7. renewable energy

Microbial fuel cells & low energy transmission
microbial fuell cell is as well sensor as energy producer.
study of dead bees, honey, wax, all organic residues. Cradle to cradle.
Sensor Data are send over the network in the most economic way possible. The microprocessors are activated once a day to send the collected data to the server.

A MFC consists of an anode, a cathode, a proton or cation exchange membrane and an electrical circuit. A microbial fuel cell converts chemical energy, available in a bio-convertible substrate, directly into electricity. To achieve this, bacteria are used as a catalyst to convert substrate into electrons. Bacteria are very small organisms which can convert a huge variety of organic compounds into CO2, water and energy. The micro-organsisms use the produced energy to grow and to maintain there metabolism. However, by using a MFC we can harvest a part of this microbial energy in the form of electricity.

8. new testfields & new set ups

Soundlab, thermographic camera monitoring, …
The Urban Farm - Brussel's first rooftop farm - is one of these open air laboratories. It is built on a set of connected rooftops in the historical center of Brussels, on the same spot where in medieval times vegetable and fish markets were set up, among houses and cloister gardens. The farm, built on top of a big parking lot, is a place where artists and urban gardeners develop new strategies for sustainable living in the city. An artistic attitude, green technology and the philosophy of permaculture present new opportunities for citizens to connect to food, to gain food security and contribute to sustainable living.

In another project I work on the visualization of the temperature in a bee nest with specialized equipment, namely, a thermographic (or infrared) camera. During several months I will make continuous recordings of the thermal structure of a beehive. Temperature is one of the most important parameters in the development of a bee colony. The energy the bees have to spend to keep the inside of the hive to a constant level of 35°C depends also on environmental factors such as the surface and location of foraging fields, the biodiversity, pollution and pesticides. The temperature study of a beehive related to the measured environmental factors can help us to develop intelligent beehives that sustain the colony in their energy management.

I am working on a new version of the Sound Beehive. We are preparing the setup and soon we will introduce the bees.
We mounted 4 piezo microphones on the frames and 4 electret microphones in the rooftop of the hive. The purpose is to take snippets of sound on regular time intervals, on 8 separate audio channels. The 8 channels are mixed into an mp3 stereo file in the computer and than uploaded as a (nearly realtime) playlist on the OKNO server for public access.
The archived files will be analysed by scientists on recurrent patterns and the results will be linked back to the behaviour of the bees.

bee_laboratory_talk.txt · Last modified: 2016/01/13 18:48 (external edit)
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