BeeTracked: High-performance and robust outdoor insect tracking for all

Project overview

There are open positions on this project. Contact Andrew Straw for more information.

Insects play an important role in ecology and agriculture. Yet, our understanding of these animals whose biology is entwined with our own is strongly limited by difficulty in studying their behavior in detail. What do they do? Where do they go? How do they do it? These questions are hard to answer, but doing so will help address problems like wide-scale insect loss. Therefore, in this strategic concept for a new direction of the Professorship of Neurobiology and Behavior, we develop insect tracking technology that will advance the state of the art, we will make existing tools more widely available, and we will demonstrate the interesting insect behavior to the public.

The Straw Lab works at the intersection of neurobiology, animal behavior, and engineering, and we have pioneered the use of computer-based technology to make experiments in the lab more reflective of natural, real-world conditions. To date, we have worked on the genetic model organism Drosophila. Here we want to move into a new direction to bring advanced, computer-based tracking technologies into nature, so that insects can be studied in their natural habitats with a level of precision previously possible only in the lab.

This concept has three parts:

  • First, we will develop an outdoor insect tracking system based on a principle not yet applied to this problem. This system should be capable of tracking insects in their natural habitat with millimeter and millisecond resolution over spatial scales of tens, hundreds, and perhaps thousands of meters. We envision this to be a breakthrough technology for the fields of ecology and ethology.

  • Second, we will take existing camera-based insect tracking systems and extract and refine them into a robust, field-deployable system requiring a minimum of training and specialist knowledge for use by anyone with interest and very modest resources. For more information, see Braid, our existing multi-camera tracking system.

  • Third, we will develop an exhibit in which children and adults are informed and entertained by live insect tracking showing animal trajectories and a simulation of its visual experience as it moves through its environment.

Implementing this concept will help my professorship build contact with more scientific disciplines and the public – and with that, more relevance. This will enable our expertise, gained from years of engineering sophisticated lab-based systems, to be applied to “real-world” problems such as the effects of pesticides and climate change on insects such as bees.

This project is generously funded via the Momentum program of the VolkswagenStiftung.