U of G using math to study bees

March 18, 2010

March 22, 2010, Guelph, Ont. – If you wanted to build better beehives or improve crop pollination, you'd probably talk to beekeepers and biologists. But mathematicians? At the University of Guelph, experts in bees and numbers are working together on studies of hive design, pollination webs and disease transmission.

 U of G researchers check hives
University of Guelph researchers check hives.

“This may be the only math apiculture working group worldwide," said mathematics and statistics professor Hermann Eberl.

He and other department members are now helping researchers in U of G’s School of Environmental Sciences to solve problems in hive geometry, viral disease infection and pollination webs. Their work may assist everyone from beekeepers tending hives to ecologists protecting threatened pollinator habitat.

Make happier bees, goes the thinking, and you'll produce happier beekeepers — not to mention healthier consumers and a healthier food industry largely reliant on bees and other pollinators to help produce each year's harvest.

Eberl, post-doc Rangarajan Sudarsan and Cody Thompson, a biophysics master's student, are modeling air flow in beehives. Bees keep their hive temperature at a just-so range around 35 degrees by vibrating their wings to generate heat. A couple of degrees higher and the developing brood will die. Too cool and the brood may still develop but the bees will take longer to mature. "The brood chamber is held within very narrow constraints, like human body temperature," said retired environmental sciences professor Peter Kevan.

Air flow also alters concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour. It may also impact transmission of disease, such as viruses carried by parasites that scientists believe have devastated bee colonies in North America in recent years.

Guelph statistics professor Ayesha Ali is studying interactions between plants and pollinators through pollination webs. Pollination involves thousands of species of plants and animals, including bees. Teasing out which insects work with particular plants quickly becomes a complex problem, she says. “That’s where the math challenges lie. It’s a huge network."

Ali hopes to develop models to help biologists understand how problems such habitat loss, forest fragmentation or non-native species introduction can affect plant-pollinator interactions.

Worldwide, insect pollination is worth about $217 billion a year in food and fibre production. Researchers from across Canada belong to the Canadian Pollination Initiative (NSERC-CANPOLIN) based at U of G.

Funded by a five-year, $5-million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the organization aims to stem the growing problem of pollinator decline in agricultural and natural ecosystems in Canada, said Kevan, scientific director of the national research group.

The Guelph bee-math research collaboration began when Thompson, then an undergrad in environmental engineering, started a co-op placement in environmental biology. Working with Kevan, he adapted computing software for simulating building airflow to study air circulation in beehives.

Thompson is now studying the problem with Eberl. Referring to occasional visits to beehives on campus, he said: “I've been stung a few times but it's worth it."

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