Bees from MIT fly to space and back

Image of bees in circular container.

Photo: Mediated Matter group

MIT made its latest foray into research in space on May 2 via six payloads from the Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, tucked into Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable space vehicle that took off from a launchpad in West Texas. One of the payloads included approximately 40 honey bees.

“The projects we’re testing operate fundamentally different in Earth’s gravity compared to how they would operate in microgravity,” explained Ariel Ekblaw, the founder and lead of the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. And the results of that research may have big implications for semiconductor manufacturing, art and telepresence, architecture and farming, among other things.

In this particular case, the Media Lab is interested in seeing the impact that space travel has on a queen bee and her retinue.

Two queen bees that were inseminated at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Louisiana went to space, each with roughly 20 attendant bees whose job it was to feed her and help control her body temperature. The bees traveled via two small containers — metabolic support capsules — into which they previously built honeycomb structures. This unique design gave them a familiar environment for their trip. A modified GoPro camera, pointed into the specially designed container housing the bees, was fitted into the top of the case to film the insects and create a record of their behavior during flight. Everything inside the case was designed to make the journey as comfortable as possible for the bees, right down to a tiny golden heating pad that was designed to kick into action if the temperature dropped too low for a queen bee’s comfort.

Researchers will study the behavior of the bees when they return to Earth and are reintroduced to a colony at the Media Lab. Will the queens lay their eggs? Will those eggs hatch? And can bees who’ve been to space continue making pollen and honey once they’ve returned to Earth? Those are among the many questions the team will be asking.

“We currently have no robotic alternative to bees for pollination of many crops,” Ekblaw said. “If we want to grow crops on Mars, we may need to bring bees with us. Knowing if they can survive a mission, reintegrate into the hive, and thrive afterwards is critical.”

Adapted and edited from MIT Media Lab news release.