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U of G using math to study bees


March 18, 2010
By Dave Harrison


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U of G researchers check hivesWEB EXCLUSIVE

U of G using math
to study bees

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.



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.
PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH


“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."