International collaboration: mathematics and biology

Combining mathematics and biology Associate Professor Mary Myerscough, Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman, Postdoctoral Fellow Timothy Schaerf and PhD Student James Makinson employ computer algorithms in an effort to understand the social interaction of Apis florea – the red dwarf honey bee. Assuming no one eats your research first.

by Tim Groenendyk

Marked bee swarm

A swarm of individually marked Apis florea - red dwarf honey bees

Associate Professor Myerscough has been thinking - and writing - about biological systems in a mathematical sense ever since a colleague remarked on how a colony of bees regulates its core temperature not unlike the process of coal combustion. “It turns out bees are really just a more active version of coal.”

With Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman and PhD student James Makinson from the School of Biological Sciences, and Postdoctoral fellow Timothy Schaerf – who completed a PhD in applied mathematics – Myerscough and team form an unusual but formidable research effort studying the social interaction of bees.

The convergence of biology, mathematics and computer science has been essential to understanding Apis florea – the red dwarf honey bee. Even with the bees each individually labelled “we still don’t understand what the bees are doing when they’re actually flying,” explained Beekman.

Unlike the extensively researched European honey bee, Apis mellifera, who send scouts ahead for good locations before the swarm flies for a new nest, red dwarf scouts indicate towards numerous sites at once, using a ‘waggle dance’. So when it took off where did it go?

Enter German collaborator Konrad Diwold, a computing student whose simulation models found that the swarm was able to average out the trajectories in flight.

Apis florea colony

Apis florea colony

“This meant the decision was actually made in the air not on the ‘hanging swarm’ – different to Apis mellifera,” said Myerscough.

Beekman and Myerscough agree that when working with people across disciplines it’s imperative to find the right fit.

“You want people who are motivated and have that desire to cross the bridges and learn,” said Myerscough, “And I think the group that Diwold comes from really exemplifies that.”

Despite difficulties understanding bioscience jargon, Diwold’s group served to link the two disciplines together.

"They were really open minded people, really interested in biological questions and using their specific skill sets to help us understand our systems better,” said Beekman.

Grants from the Australian Research Council - which employed Schaerf - and the Human Frontier Science program (HFSP) – a French based program supported by the European Union and 13 other countries – helped gel together nations and disciplines.

“The nice thing about the HFSP is that they really encourage international and interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Beekman. “It gives you the opportunity to branch out in different directions.”

“They’re really open to creative interdisciplinary work,” agrees Myerscough. “Sometimes, if you structure things, like grant schemes, so that it’s strongly discipline bound you can lose that.”
Offshoots of their work resonate across other disciplines of study, including computers algorithms and robotics.

“The idea is inspired by biology: take some very simple individuals, such as a series of robots, give them rules to interact and let them get on with it. If you lose one robot it doesn’t matter,” explains Myerscough.

“But if you build a system where you have a single very complicated robot to do the job and there’s a fault the whole thing falls over.”

Research into social insects has also contributed to ideas in psychology.

“You can really understand human behaviour by looking at something simple,” said Beekman. “We think we’re really complex organisms but on many levels we’re not that complex at all.”
In Thailand, where Makinson studied the wild bees’ colonies, human behaviour modelling couldn’t have predicted how his data collection would be stalled.

During Makinson’s last excursion to Thailand, he encountered Burmese construction workers employed near one of his field sites who had a shared passion for his research subjects. The colourful paint markings the student had applied to each bee must have made the swarm impossible to resist.

“A few times, at lunch break, they’d take one of my colonies and cook it up for lunch and eat the brood comb,” said Makinson. “There’d be a fire near one of my colonies and I’d find dead bees on the ground. And I’d realise they’d come in to have a snack.”