Models of the honeybee nest-site selection process
Project title: Models of the honeybee nest-site selection process
Project participants: Dr Timothy Schaerf (University of New England), Professor Mary Myerscough (University of Sydney), Professor Madeleine Beekman (University of Sydney)
As part of their reproductive cycle, colonies of honeybees issue swarms. These swarms must then find a site to establish a new colony quickly, as a swarm is unable to store food without established combs, and is often vulnerable to the elements. Aspects of the complex process used by the cavity nesting honeybee Apis mellifera to select a new nest-site are relatively well understood due to a century of scientific research founded on the works of Karl von Frisch and Martin Lindauer (A. mellifera is the species of honeybee used by the honey industry). It is only in the last decade that detailed scientific investigations of the nest-site selection process of other species, of which there are at least six, have been undertaken. Common to each of the species studied with some detail (the cavity nesting A. mellifera, the red dwarf honeybee, A. florea, and the giant honeybee, A. dorsata) swarms release scouts to investigate the surrounding landscape for potential nest-sites. Upon their return to the swarm, scouts that have found a suitable target then perform a waggle dance, a stylised behaviour first recognised by Karl von Frisch as encoding the distance and direction to a resource of interest in the environment (in the context of nest-site selection, this resource is a potential new home). Other bees on the swarm follow such waggle dances, and then use the encoded information to help them find and assess the advertised site themselves. If these recruited bees also think that the advertised site is suitable, then they will return to the swarm, and advertise the location of the site to other bees with their own waggle dances. Over time, if enough bees are recruited to a particular specific site (in the case of A. mellifera) or a general direction (as seems to be the case for A. florea and perhaps A. dorsata), then the swarm chooses that site as a collective, and then flies to the new site to start building their new colony.
A number of mathematical models have been developed to better understand the honeybee nest-site selection process, including systems of ordinary and stochastic differential equations, matrix models and individual-based simulation models. Most of these models have been developed specifically to examine nest-site selection by A. mellifera, and take into account a number of known species specific behaviours. Participants in this project will build on existing models, and develop new models, to best reflect current knowledge of the overall nest-site selection processes of A. mellifera, A. florea and A. dorsata. These models will then be used to examine effects of swarm size (and hence the number of active participants in nest-site selection), noisy communication, and the number and relative positions of viable nesting sites on the decision-making ability of swarms of each species. Further work could then include developing a multi-generational nest-site selection model to examine how quickly species can adjust their nest-site selection process, if at all, when changing environmental conditions force a change in the type of nest-site sought.
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