An inside look at how Ant-Man tech may solve Washington’s Asian giant hornet problem

VIDEO: Tiny technology being used to understand and hopefully stop Asian giant hornets

It looks like something that leaped out of the Marvel universe – a camera so tiny that it fits onto a live beetle as the bug walks through the University of Washington campus.

“It’s very much like trying to build a real-life Ant-Man,” Vikram Iyer said with a laugh.

“Well, maybe not to fit real ants — but that’s what we’re working towards,” he said.

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This example of tiny-tech, a steerable camera capable of delivering real-time video roughly a football field away, is one of Iyer’s more recent collaborations. He’s also worked on even smaller sensors meant to be mounted on honeybees to track temperature and humidity readings.

So when Asian giant hornets showed up in Washington state late in 2019, it didn’t take Iyer long to realize his work could be the exact thing state officials needed to solve a big problem.

Iyer used his previous work to create a prototype sensor that is small enough, and light enough, to be attached to the larger-than-usual hornet in hopes that it’ll allow scientists with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) to track the hornets back to their nests — an important step in trying to eliminate them from our region.

“We started trying to adapt the sorts of tech we’ve been developing here to be able to build something we could put on these hornets to try to track them,” said Iyer.

Tracking the hornet will be the most important step to ensure Asian giant hornets get a permanent eviction notice from Washington. While traps have proven useful in recent weeks, the nests the hornets are coming from are still intact.

According to WSDA entomologist Sven-Erik Spichiger, a nest can create up to 200 queens in a single year. Each queen is capable of creating a new nest. Realistically, we know that only a handful of queens are successful even in their normal environment. Still, researchers don’t want to take chances at the Asian giant  hornet spreading throughout our region.

“In reality, it’s probably just a handful,” said  Spichiger.

This year, the WSDA has trapped two hornets. It brings the total of confirmed sightings to seven — all of which were found in Whatcom County.

Starting next week, Iyer plans to meet up with WSDA to demonstrate the prototype that he’s created with the help of an undergraduate student named Jose Jaime.

If things work out as expected, entomologists will trap a live hornet, place them in ice to “stun” them and then glue the miniature sensor to the hornet’s back. Iyer’s device will allow them to track the hornet and read the surrounding temperature, essentially telling the scientists when it’s re-entered it’s hive based on the heat readings.

While the technology sounds out of this world, Iyer told KIRO 7 that if you ignore the hours of research/development, the prototype is roughly $40 worth of parts – quite the bargain if it proves useful in zeroing in on what has become Washington’s most recognizable invasive species.

Iyer hopes it’s just the beginning of real-world problems solved through the miniature tech he’s helped create inside the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

His goal is to create more miniaturized tech that he hopes will one day allow scientists to tap into the world of insects and birds, allowing us to learn or utilize skills they already possess that surpass our own technologies.

“They can just do thing better than the technology that we can,” said Iyer, referencing how bees can fly for hours without rest and wondering aloud whether we can pair natural systems with human-made tech to tear down further barriers.

As for WSDA, it is asking for the public’s help as it continues to track down Asian giant hornets. It is expecting more activity in August and September.

If you think you have seen an Asian giant hornet, report it at agr.wa.gov/hornets. Provide as many details as you can about what you saw and where. Include a photo if you can safely obtain one. If you come across a dead specimen, keep it for potential testing.

If a citizen scientist traps a live Asian giant hornet, they should call the WSDA Pest Program hotline at 1-800-443-6684.