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Inside the science: Building the “insominator”

The Further Findings research blog reveals how the magnetic machine dubbed the “insominator” keeps sleeping honey bees awake.

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This story was originally published on the Further Findings blog.

Researchers wanted to find out if sleep-deprived bees have trouble communicating just like sleep-deprived people do.

First, they had to keep the bees from getting too many Zs.

They couldn’t give the bees a buzz with shots of espresso or gulps of Red Bull. Nor could they keep the lights on and play loud music as if the bees next door were having a party.

Their answer was the “insominator.”

It’s not a high-tech, cyborgian machine that came from the future. It’s a clever device that was built in a shop in Robert A. Welch Hall.

The insominator is made of plexiglass, magnets and aluminum. The magnets jostle bees that have been outfitted with tiny pieces of metal so they can’t settle into a long night’s sleep. (Bees usually get eight hours.)

Barrett Klein, a former ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, was the lead researcher on the study, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the Nation Academy of Sciences. He’s now a researcher at Universität Würzburg in Germany.

Klein discovered that sleep-deprived honey bees weren’t able to as easily communicate the direction of nectar-filled flower patches through their usual waggle dance.

Watch a video of a sleepy bee doing the waggle dance.

In the paper about the experiment, the researchers described how they prepared the bees for the experiment and how they built the insominator. It’s a look inside the process of devising an experiment and designing and building the tools to pull it off.

Klein built the insominator after consulting extensively with Terry Watts, the scientific instrument maker supervisor for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and receiving guidance from Joey Stein at Moey Inc., a design firm in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo of Barrett Klein with bees

Barrett Klein and colleagues studied the effects of sleep deprivation on honey bees. 

It was Watts who came up with the name.

“It came to me in the middle of the night as I lay awake trying to figure out how to make the darn thing work,” he said with a laugh.

Actually, Watts said, it was just a funny way to describe what the device does.

“Working for the Chemistry and Biology departments we get a lot of requests for some strange devices,” he said. “Sometimes it’s amusing to give them silly names that relate to what they do.”

Klein’s objective was to keep the bees awake, Watts said.

“Obviously he needed an insominator,” he said. “Barrett was a great person to work with and I knew he would appreciate a little humor as we worked on the project.”

Here’s a look at the process they went through to prep the bees and build the device.

After collecting 50 bees and cooling them so they could be handled, the researchers marked them in different colors with Sharpie markers so the bees could be identified.

Then the researchers attached a tiny magnetic disk (2.38 mm diameter and 0.25 mm thick) to 25 bees and copper disks to the other 25, who were the control group. A magnetic disk would react to the insominator’s magnets. The copper disk would not. Klein received advice from noted bee expert Norman Gary on the tagging process.

The insominator came next.

Graphic of the insominator

A sketch of the insominator from the published study. 

It consisted of two pieces of plexiglas, each containing three columns of 14 neodymium rare earth magnets. There were 42 magnets per side, arranged one centimeter apart within an array so that the magnetic polarities of the two arrays cancelled out each other.

Their effect was to have a consistent magnetic attraction throughout the hive.

The magnetic arrays slid along an aluminum rail that was permanently attached below the suspended hive, limiting the points of contact between the insominator and the hive to only one felt-lined magnet per side.

Previous sleep-deprivation devices were used on isolated, caged honey bees. The insominator selectively disrupted uncaged bees while they were in their hive. That maintained normal social conditions and avoided disruption of the control bees.

The result was that Klein and his colleague found that sleep-deprived bees are less articulate in telling their colleagues were food is.

Up next, is a new and improved, automated version of the insominator built by Watts with electronics and programming by Tim Hooper, who works in the instrument shop.

Read more about the study’s findings …