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Using maths to make the most of bees for improved food production

Simul Systems Ltd has developed an algorithm for the optimum placement of hives
Simul Systems Ltd has developed an algorithm for the optimum placement of hives

Global food production and bees are closely interrelated – but optimising how honeybees pollinate food crops could help improve yields, despite declining populations.

Shrinking bee numbers have prompted fears of food shortages, as more than a third of global food production relies on animal pollination, largely by honeybees. And recent research has suggested that the more dependent crops are on pollinators, the less stable their yields.

However, there could be ways to make more of the bees we still have, according to Andrew Lewis, director of Simul Systems Ltd., a UK-based company that has developed a mathematical algorithm to optimise the placement of beehives in orchards and fields during the crucial period for crop pollination.

The first incarnation of its Project Beeswax proved the concept, Lewis says, and the company is now looking for funding for Beeswax II, a more complex algorithm that will take into account constraints like weather, obstructions and competitive fields.

“We have got to place the hives so the bees are satisfied with the orchard and don’t go whizzing off to the field of rapeseed next door,” he said. “If we can increase the amount of visits by bees then we can improve the quality of the fruit as well as the yield.”

Lewis explained that increased pollination can also decrease malformation, leading to less fruit wasted due to failing to meet retailer standards. Currently, the company is focused on apples, cherries and alfalfa, with plans to expand into cranberries in North America.

Seeking industry sponsors

“This is a significant project. We believe that this is an important project and therefore we need to upscale it in terms of our resources,” he said. “…We are looking for industry sponsors, a fruit company or a research company who would fund us to the tune of €40,000.”

Beeswax I was developed with Dr Abdel Salhi, head of mathematical sciences at the University of Essex, and Lewis said the sponsorship would fund a PhD student to work on the software and pay for more of the university’s time, as well as provide some working capital.

“I think it could improve the quality and quantity and make a significant difference because at the moment it is very haphazard. People have relaxed into their traditional ways…The motivation to change isn’t there yet, until we can prove that we can increase the yields.”

Lewis says that the company cannot yet put an exact number on potential yield improvement, but an American research team has been working on a similar project to improve pollination of Californian almonds, and is close to publishing its findings.

“The only people who have an idea are the Americans,” he said. “…The key thing for us is how the measuring works. We do need a methodology for measuring yield and measuring quality output. It’s not just about measuring how many more apples we get as how many more good apples we get.”

2 comments (Comments are now closed)

Well said Isabelle!

If this math program doesn't provide variety its not a solution and it should be re-written accordingly before going to test#2

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Posted by NYBEESANCTUARY
20 October 2013 | 23h40

We need to change

Increase the amount of visits in the orchard and prevent them from going to the rapeseed next door.... What an idea! Industry wants that, but bees don't!
Would you like to eat almonds for two weeks? Or citrus, or tomatoes... You would go and look for something else, something your body needs. Bees need variety, variety and variety, without poison, and they need respect and love. To often people think of bees as profitmakers, for their honey, for their wax, for pollination and we rule their way of living by changing their hive, by preventing swarms, by giving sugar in return, without all the benefits of plants which is there in nectar. Of course they get nasty! Of course they get ill, and are being slaugthered by lice and mites and bacteria: they are weakened! In pollen they find the aminoacids which their larvae need, when they can not find the specific ones in this lot, they will go else where. We - industry, people - need to change our customs, and the way of looking at food and life in total.
How much is that worth?

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Posted by Isabelle Hylkema
16 October 2013 | 16h39

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