Learning from honey bees
Biosensors are used in medical diagnostics and food and environmental analyses, to name just a few examples. apic.ai, a start-up based in Karlsruhe, uses honey bees as bioindicators to gain insights into the state of the ecosystem. The company also uses artificial intelligence (AI) methods for their ecotoxicological investigations.
Katharina Schmidt is a business economist and has been a passionate beekeeper for three years – following on from a family tradition since 1984. In 2017, she decided to combine her work and her hobby by founding apic.ai with Matthias Diehl, an electrical engineer, and Frederic Tausch, a computer scientist. The technology company uses a special visual monitoring system to investigate honey bee colonies and draw conclusions about the state of the colonies and their environment. "We equip beehives with our measuring system and a camera that films the bees as they fly in and out of the beehive,” explains Schmidt. “A conspicuously high loss of forager bees, low flight activity or changes in foraging behaviour can provide us with insights into the local living conditions of insects. “The monitoring system is based on artificial intelligence methods, more specifically, neural networks. These consist of artificial neurons connected together as a network. The highly complex structure, inspired by the human brain, enables a computer algorithm to be trained with sample datasets, making it possible to automatically detect the bees and track their movements and behavioural patterns.
Biosensors have long been an integral part of the medical field
apic.ai’s idea is based on what are known as "biosensors". The term was coined by Karl Cammann back in 1977 to refer to a recognition system that uses a biochemical mechanism. As defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in 1997, a biosensor is a self-contained integrated receptor that is capable of providing specific quantitative or semi-quantitative analytical information using a biological recognition element.1 Biosensors are thus able to record a multitude of biological data and make them technically usable. The recognition element can consist of an enzyme, an antibody, DNA, receptors, cells, tissues or even whole living organisms.2, 3
Biosensors have long been used for medical applications, for example as enzyme sensors for measuring blood glucose levels in people with diabetes or checking lactate levels to assess the fitness of athletes. Immune sensors based on antigen-antibody reactions are also already on the market.
Likewise, biosensors are sometimes also used for analysing food and environmental samples. Two examples:
The "Molecular Cell Technology" research group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology in Stuttgart, for example, is developing biosensor methods for monitoring drinking water for the presence of fever-producing microbial components (pyrogens). In this case, microorganisms or mammalian cells that respond quickly to the contamination of drinking water are used as biological elements.4
- An international team of scientists has developed a novel biosensor system to facilitate and make the detection of drug contaminants more effective in water. The sensitive device that they developed can measure two classes of pharmaceutical agents in real time, namely beta blockers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This measurement is made possible by a cell-based biosensor system that generates a fluorescent signal as soon as the biosensors come into contact with the pharmaceuticals. The system was developed within the framework of the cooperative "EFF-Pharm" project at the University of Tübingen, funded by the German Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.5, 6
The honey bee is a good environmental indicator
The biosensor system developed by apic.ai also permits statements to be made on the state of the environment. "Due to the bees’ flying range, we can assume that bees are good biosensors for an area within a radius of two to three kilometres around the beehive," explains Katharina Schmidt. "If the honey bee feels unwell due to toxins or lack of food, it can be assumed that the conditions for wild bees and other insects in the area are likely to be at least as bad."
apic.ai is currently involved in two pilot projects
- Use of the monitoring system for the area-wide recording of the quality of urban and rural insect habitats: in Karlsruhe, the start-up is currently establishing a test area to record the local living conditions of insects. For this purpose, it installed monitoring systems at 18 locations and linked them into a city-wide network of measuring stations. Insights into the living conditions of insects at the individual sites will be derived from the data collected.
- Testing of herbicide products: in cooperation with a company called Eurofins Agroscience Services, apic.ai has validated its measuring system as a tool for ecotoxicological investigations. Insecticide manufacturers must conduct such analyses before the insecticides are placed on the market in order to prove that they are safe for insects. The system also helps assess other hypotheses about the causes of insect death.
Both methods are currently being validated. "In all the discussions about insect death, we often forget that we first have to understand the problem before we can take any meaningful remedial action," says Katharina Schmidt. "We believe that reliable data will soon make it possible to gain more insights into many relationships."