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Will Digital Beehives Save Us From Colony Collapse Disorder?

New software allows researchers to model life inside a bee colony more efficiently, which could help prevent economic catastrophe.
(Photo: Sean McCann/Flickr)

(Photo: Sean McCann/Flickr)

Forget the bee suit: This week, scientists introduced a computer program that allows anyone at home in their pajamas to watch the entire lifespan of a honeybee colony play out in seconds. The software is called BEEHAVE, and it’s a modeling system designed to help users understand how different factors in a beehive’s environment affect bees’ productivity and health.

Honeybees have been staples in the news for the past decade because their numbers seem to be dropping. Beekeepers throughout North America and Europe have been reporting unusually high annual losses, but the cause is hotly debated. The decline might just be part of a natural fluctuation, or it could be the result of colony collapse disorder, an abrupt and widespread disappearance of bees—possibly driven by humans—that could lead to economic catastrophe. Bees, the world's primary pollinators, are used commercially to grow more than $200 billion worth of crops each year.

BEEHAVE is not the first computer program to model bee behavior, but it is the first to integrate such a wide variety of potentially harmful conditions into a single system.

The field research needed to account for enough environmental factors to get to the bottom of this mystery is expensive as well as “immensely complicated and difficult to do,” said Pernille Thorbek, one of the project’s collaborators, in a press release. So to make things easier, he and his colleagues decided to create their own digital bee colonies to have full control over variables that may contribute to their deaths. BEEHAVE simulates a colony’s whole life—with models for the queen laying eggs, nurse bees attending to her brood, foragers collecting nectar and pollen, etc.—and allows users to throw in stressors like food shortages, mite infestations, pesticides, and diseases to see how their digital bees fare over time in different contexts.

In minutes, the program provides years of hypothetical data.

“While empirical research is essential to create new knowledge, in silico experiments can help to provide understanding of the findings and highlight critical knowledge gaps,” according to the study that introduces the program, “as they allow us to test and analyse the effects of a variety of factors and interactions between them in a fast and cost-effective way.”

BEEHAVE is not the first computer program to model bee behavior, but it is the first to integrate such a wide variety of potentially harmful conditions into a single system, and therefore the most realistic, its creators claim. In initial trials, the program has suggested colonies infested with common mites are more vulnerable to food shortages, forager bees are more resilient to pesticides than previously thought, and nearby food sources are key to keeping hives healthy, even if the hives have good foragers.

While the model is far too new to say anything definitive about the state of the world’s honeybees, the researchers designed it to be updated and expanded with the hopes that it will stay relevant in the conversation for a long time. The program is free to download, and, according to collaborator Juliet Osborne, "user-friendly," so that it can be "explored and used by a large variety of interested people," not just experts.