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Canadian mathematicians create Sims-like program to save bees

Pollinators are in trouble, but soon there may be an easier way to study them.

More science is needed to protect pollinators. Gamification may be the solution

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More science is needed to protect pollinators. Gamification may be the solution

Our honeybees are in trouble. For years, they’ve been plagued with Colony Collapse Disorder, a strange syndrome where masses of bees mysteriously die far from the hive, leaving honey – and defenceless baby bees – behind. Why? It’s a complicated combination of pesticides, parasites and other factors. For the future of our food supply and our economy, we must figure out how to protect pollinators. But studying them is time-consuming and expensive. Thanks to a creative pair of Canadian mathematicians, that may be about to change.

What is Bee++?

It’s a computer program created at the University of Western Ontario by mathematician Matt Betti and master’s student Josh LeClair. It simulates the lifecycle of honeybees, taking into account all sorts of factors the user can customize.  

Think of it as The Sims, for bees. It’s free to download from http://www.beeplusplus.ca and written in the common and easy-to-learn programming language C++ (hence the name). The code is open-source. Anyone can tinker or make improvements.

How it works

Using a grid that represents the bees’ habitat, you plant the crops of your choice, place your hive, choose the variables you want, then start the simulation. As time ticks by, watch and see what happens to the bees and look at graphical outputs of data like deaths and pesticide concentration.

Choose your challenges

You can mess around with many factors that affect bees. Here are a few:

-       Pathogens: You can program viruses and parasites to attack your bees. The dreaded varroa mite is Bee Enemy #1.

-       Pesticides: A group of insecticides called neonicotinoids are especially bad for bees.

-       Weather: Input real weather data from any government website

-       Food:  Choose the types of plants in the environment and where to put them. The program doesn’t just measure how the bees get nutrition from plants, it also measures how plants respond to pollinators.

Model Beehaviour

You can change the characteristics of your digital bees in many ways: What age do they fly from the hive? How much pesticide does it take to kill them? How much do they reproduce?

Just like in real life, different bees have different jobs (some are queens, others nurses or foragers), and their roles change throughout their lives.

The bees tend to buzz around sources of food, but a few will always be “scouts,” flying around every which-way looking for new sources of tasty bee treats.

As bees drink nectar contaminated with pesticides, toxins build up in their bodies, affecting their ability to navigate and find food. And they have a tiny “digital liver,” so the effect changes over time as the pesticide is digested.

Future buzz

After years of work, Bee++ was introduced to the research community this week in the journal Insects.

The program could be a boon to bee biologists. But Betti has even bigger hopes for it. "‘I’m naively ambitious,” he said. He wants Environment Canada and the provincial natural resources ministries to one day use Bee++ to help predict how their policies will affect bees.

Bee++ was designed using real research data. The next step is to test it against bee colonies in the real world and see how well it can predict how they’ll do.  

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