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Automatic Insect Painting/Gluing Device for Scientists? Answered

Scientists studying small insects need ways to assign a unique ID to each bug. Two of the most common methods they use are A) manually painting small color patterns onto the thorax (and sometimes head and abdomen) of the insect, and B) gluing a small tag(number, qr code, RFID chip) to the thorax. These techniques are very effective, but SUPER TIME CONSUMING. It can take a trained student about 5 minutes to paint each ant or bee (and they need to paint thousands). I want to help them out by decreasing the amount of man power needed to give a unique ID to each insect.

My thoughts were to make a device where an insect could walk into a tube of designated size (exact bee space at the entrance of a bee hive for instance), have its presence sensed, maybe prevent it's forward or backward motion for a short while,  and have a device that attaches a tag or paints a unique pattern onto the insect. You can see some of my initial thoughts in the scanned picture below. HIGH RES HERE

My question is about good places to start in building this contraption, or if anyone has good or simple . The thresholds are quite small for the insects (bees are maybe 1/8-1/4 inch wide), and we need to be exact where we attach the tag so as not to hurt the poor critters or alter their behavior.

I am handy with an arduino and simple servos and can incorporate computer vision from an android phone into the mix with the ADK

First elaborate or super cool response gets gifted a 3 month pro membership!

(that lovely ant pic used as an example is by amazing photographer Alex Wild, the other is when you google "honeybee RFID")


You can buy the inkjet mechanism you'd need from people like Domino. I suggest you build your bee holder so it can hold it securely, as you pass it under a print head like one of the Domino A series.

There are a wide range of printers available that can do it, but they won't be cheap. I don't really think modifying an off the shelf printer would be practical - one of these domino things just takes in serial text and prints out.

Some of their inks are UV curable polymers - presumably they won't fall off.


Ahh, this was the kind of advice I was moreso looking for: how to get an appropriate mechanism to paint on them. We have ways of targeting their location, sedating them, but no automated way of actually inking them. I'll call up Domino and see if they have solutions, also alternative methods that people have seen for homebrew microprinting are quite welcome.

I kicked this around with my design and development team last week, and we could offer a turnkey solution we think, if you have budget.


Cool! We do have a budget, but our research focuses on constructing open-source software and hardware tools for scientists. So we could in theory work out a deal to pay you for working with us to develop a design and assembling and creating parts, but every part of its eventual design needs to be open (plus I like working through the design and coding up solutions too!). We couldn't simply ask our scientists to rely on a single proprietary solution from a single company.

Turnkey solutions would be awesome for us, but for sustainability reasons, we also need to be able to share the entire design and code such that a scientific group could theoretically stumble across our documentation and assemble their own insect tagger (after they purchase the neccessary parts, possibly from you guys, but possibly from others).

Either way we should definitley talk : )
my email: andrew.quitmeyer(AT)gmail

Thanks so much for your help!

Depending on the requirement to view the ID by naked eye:

Smart Water
Ink jet printer for ants
Smallest carrier for data would be DNA so attach a different hair to each ant

Paint legs - 6 legs in Binary gives a code capable of counting to 63 then use a different colour - infinite possibilities.

There is a bit of requirement to be able to view the tag with the naked eye (and from a top down view of their back), as most of the behavioral tracking is done by computer vision cameras mounted above the ants or facing the side of an observation hive.

What is smartwater?
An ink jet printer for ants would be perfect, but that's pretty much what my question is, how can I make an ink jet printer for ants? : )

The method of reading the unique ID needs to be fairly instantaneous (like an RFID or barcode), so DNA would be out for now.
There's no real advantage to painting the leg, versus the much larger and easier to paint thorax or abdomen. Also the thorax stays continually in view when looking from the top, if paint was on the legs they might be obscured at some points in the ant walk cycle.

smartwater is for tracking fingerprints after theft it is good stuff but u need to
know alot about DNA to take the fingerprints to find out who it was.

Perhaps adapting a device like Harvey Moon's drawing machine

could do the trick, at least for painting the dots. Turning it into a gluing/attaching device would be trickier. Anyone have any good ideas or similar instructables that would point to creating this sort of device?

I like the idea of using the camera to see the thorax, and using the inkjet printer. I think it would be a good idea to have it connected to an computerized data base so you don't tag each insect more than once. if there is a pattern on the insect already in the data base, it will let the insect out.

Yeah totally, those are good considerations. Have you heard of any ways that people have been able to successfully connect a printer head and an Arduino or computer vision source?

Is there any way to sort of chloroform them and then paint quickly and manually?
Beekeepers here (or probably not only here) put smoke into the hives before moving something inside...

Yes, we can pump in CO2 and it sedates the insects for about 5 minutes, and then we can paint them or whatever. The main problem is figuring out an automated method of attaching a small sticker, or painting a particular design.

hard to conceive any other way but hand painting.

I know! that's why it's such a tricky problem : )