U.Va. Math Professor Takes Students to Bee School

November 03, 2011

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November 3, 2011 — On its own, a honeybee isn't the cleverest creature. In fact, the bee brain is so light it takes about 1,000 of them to equal the weight of a dollar bill.
But a colony of honeybees is collectively smart. When faced with a complex problem such as identifying which nearby tree trunk to use for a new hive, the colony will pick the best one every time, said University of Virginia associate professor Christian Gromoll.

"Individual bees are not very bright; they just follow a set of basic rules," said Gromoll, who teaches in the mathematics department in the College of Arts & Sciences. "But when you have thousands of bees following these rules in aggregate, they always make the right choice."

This collective decision-making process is part of what drew Gromoll to amateur beekeeping, a hobby he is sharing with undergraduate students through a new extracurricular program called "Bee School," which explores the underlying math of bee behavior.

Six students will meet with Gromoll this winter in a series of seminars covering everything from computer-generated probability models to basic bee biology and beekeeping best practices. In the spring, they will begin tending to a new observation hive at Gromoll's home, where they will put their newfound beekeeping skills to use and also help develop probability models based on bee behavior.

Gromoll created Bee School with a grant from the Mead Endowment, which each year funds faculty members' projects that continue the U.Va. tradition of fostering close student-faculty relationships, as exemplified by music professor emeritus Ernest "Boots" Mead.

"The idea is to do something that's simultaneously social and intellectual," Gromoll said. "I thought this was perfect. We're not going to be doing any experiments with bees. We'll basically read about experiments that have been done by bee researchers – about how their collective rule following creates this emergent decision-making ability for a hive. And then we'll take some of those ideas and make mathematical models of them."

Ginger Smith, a fourth-year mathematics and computer science student, is part of the first Bee School class and said the experience has been great so far. The students recently went for an initial meeting and breakfast at Gromoll's home and donned protective gear to examine his bee hives.

"I thought they were going to be a lot scarier than they were," Smith said. "Mostly they were just hanging out in their hive, and there were maybe 20 flying around us."

Smith said she was drawn to Bee School because of both the math and the bees, and said the program is also a good chance to interact with a professor in a less formal setting.

"Especially as someone thinking about graduate school, I thought it would be helpful to connect with a professor doing something related to research and think about whether that's something I want to do in the future," she said.

Rowan Sprague, a third-year civil and environmental engineering student, works at U.Va.'s Morven Farm and joked that she was initially more scared of the probability modeling than she was of the bees.

After her first exposure to the hives at Gromoll's home, Sprague said she's now interested in exploring the possibility of starting a hive at Morven. The interaction with students from different disciplines and with a faculty member is also a draw, she said.

"It really means a lot, because you get to know your professor in a different way," Sprague said. "While I think a formal relationship is important, it can be nice to kind of hang out and talk with a professor. It's another aspect of the class I was really excited about."

Gromoll said he first became interested in bee behavior after reading an article about how they identify a new space for a hive. The colony uses a process called swarming, he said.

"Half of the colony flies out with the old queen," he said. "When you see a bunch of bees hanging from a tree branch like a beard, that's what's happening. Individual bees will fly off from that cluster and go find a tree cavity and walk around inside of it and assess."

If it likes the tree cavity, the individual bee will come back to the cluster and start "dancing around," trying to recruit the other bees to come check out the tree, Gromoll said. 

"The longer the bee dances, the more other bees it recruits for that cavity," he said. "So you get this caucus of bees checking out this one tree cavity, and then the recruits come back and they try to recruit more."

The process happens simultaneously at different sites as different bees from the swarm check out different trees, and the better tree cavities build up momentum and support. The bees eventually come to a sort of consensus about which tree to inhabit.

Gromoll, who studies probability, said the process raises interesting mathematical questions.

"For example, if you have two cavities that are similar, but one is slightly better, how much better does it have to be to definitely win out? If it's only a little bit better, maybe it only wins out with certain probability. We'll be able to simulate this on the computer with the students."

— By Rob Seal

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications