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.”