CATCH THE BUZZ: Virtual Hive Model Shows Value For Food, Pest Control

New Model For Virtual Hive Lets Everybody Look At Bee Problems

Alan Harman

British scientists have created a virtual hive that gives them just about everything except a bee sting.

In their search to unravel the complex causes of colony decline, the new computer model will help scientists, beekeepers and regulators to understand multiple environmental effects on honeybee colonies.

The model simulates a honey bee colony over the course of several years.

It is freely available at http://www.beehave-model.net

The scientists, led by Prof. Juliet Osborne of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, created what they call the Beehave model to simulate the life of a colony including the queen’s egg laying, brood care by nurse bees and foragers collecting nectar and pollen in a realistic landscape.

“It is a real challenge to understand which factors are most important in affecting bee colony growth and survival,” Osborne says. “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, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, 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 the 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 these effects build up over subsequent years leading to eventual failure of the colony, if it was not given an effective Varroa treatment.

Beehave can also be used to investigate potential consequences of pesticide applications. It can simulate the impact of increased loss of foragers. These results show colonies may be more resilient to this forager loss than previously thought in the short-term, but effects may accumulate over years, especially when colonies are also limited by food supply.

Beehive simulations show that good food sources close to the hive will 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 says. “The advantage is that each of these factors can be tested in a virtual environment in different combinations, before testing in the field.”

While Beehive 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 says.

“It is a real challenge to understand which factors are most important in affecting bee colony growth and survival,” Osborne says. “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.”

British Beekeepers Association president David Aston says the model will be an important tool in helping to understand the interactions and impact of the diverse stressors to which honey bee colonies can be exposed.

“Not only will it be invaluable for scientific research purposes, but it will also be an important training tool to help beekeepers better understand the impacts of their husbandry and other factors on the health and survival of their colonies,” Aston says.