Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

bee

(Photo: Sean McCann/Flickr)

Will Digital Beehives Save Us From Colony Collapse Disorder?

• March 06, 2014 • 9:45 AM

(Photo: Sean McCann/Flickr)

New software allows researchers to model life inside a bee colony more efficiently, which could help prevent economic catastrophe.

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.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.