Virtual bees help unravel colony decline

Virtual bees help unravel colony decline

New computer model helps scientists, beekeepers and regulators understand myriad effects on honeybee colonies.

SCIENTISTS have created a computer model that simulates a honeybee colony over the course of several years.

The BEEHAVE model, recently highlighted in the Journal of Applied Ecology, was created to investigate the losses of honeybee colonies that have been reported in recent years and to identify the best course of action for improving honeybee health.

A team of scientists, led by Juliet Osborne from the University of Exeter Environment & Sustainability Institute in the U.K., developed BEEHAVE, which simulates the life of a colony, including the queen laying eggs, nurse bees caring for the brood and foragers collecting nectar and pollen in a realistic landscape.

Osborne said, "It is a real challenge to understand which factors are most important in affecting bee colony growth and survival. This is the first opportunity to simulate the effects of several factors together, such as food availability, mite infestation and disease, over realistic time scales."

The model allows researchers, beekeepers and anyone interested in bees to predict colony development and honey production under different environmental conditions and beekeeping practices. To build the simulation, the scientists brought together existing honeybee research and data to develop a new model that integrated processes occurring inside and outside the hive.

The first results of the model show that colonies infested with a common parasitic mite (varroa) can be much more vulnerable to food shortages. Effects within the first year can be subtle and might be missed by beekeepers during routine management, but the model shows that these effects build up over subsequent years and lead to eventual failure of the colony if it is not given an effective varroa treatment, the announcement said.

BEEHAVE can also be used to investigate potential consequences of pesticide applications. For example, the model can simulate the impact of an increased loss of foragers. The results show that colonies may be more resilient to this forager loss than previously thought in the short term, but the effects may accumulate over years, especially when colonies also have a limited food supply.

BEEHAVE simulations show that good food sources close to the hive make a real difference to the colony and that lack of forage over extended periods leaves them vulnerable to other environmental factors. Addressing forage availability is critical to maintaining healthy hives and colonies over the long term.

"The use of this model by a variety of stakeholders could stimulate the development of new approaches to bee management, pesticide risk assessment and landscape management," Osborne added. "The advantage is that each of these factors can be tested in a virtual environment, in different combinations, before testing in the field.

"While BEEHAVE is mathematically very complex, it has a user-friendly interface and a fully accessible manual so it can be explored and used by a large variety of interested people," she added.

The BEEHAVE model is available at

"Studying several stressors in multifactorial field trials is immensely complicated and difficult to do. BEEHAVE is an important new tool which can simulate and explore interactions between stressors and can improve understanding and focus experimental work," explained Pernille Thorbek with Syngenta, which partially funded the research. "BEEHAVE can help explore which changes to agricultural landscapes and beekeeping practices will benefit honeybees the most."

Volume:86 Issue:10

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