Montanan - Volume 13, Number 3
Jerry Bromenshenk cant wait to welcome you to his on-line beehive. The adjunct research professor and his team at the University of Montana Division of Biological Sciences have created the worlds most sophisticated electronic beehive and they are ready to go on-line. If his dream comes true, kids, scientists and the just plain curious would be able to watch forager bees enter the electronic hive, laden down with the days crop of pollen or worker bees fanning the royal nursery to keep the temperature just right for the eggs.
by Kim Anderson
Computers allow scientists to enter the world of the honeybee to a degree never before possible, Bromenshenk says. And, at first glance, Bromenshenks cramped offices look more like a computer lab than a biologists headquarters. There is the clack of printers spewing out data and the glow of computer monitors, but the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflow with books on environmental studies, insect life, and chemistry.
Bromenshenks talent is for using technology to study how bees one of our best indicators of pollution are affected by environmental contaminants. "Bees," says Bromenshenk, "have become a modern day equivalent of the miners canary."
Bees as BiomonitorsA number of qualities make honey bees excellent candidates for biomonitoring. While foraging, bees sample the soil, water, air and vegetation over a wide area. Bees are one of the most studied invertebrates, so scientists know a good deal about bees economic and ecological importance. And one species of bee (Apis mellifera) occurs globally, so researchers can monitor the environment via colonies around the world.
The public also recognizes the bees importance. "Lichens, too, are incredibly sensitive to air pollutants," Bromenshenk says. "But where lichenologists are tearing their hair out because a species of lichen is dying out in some remote site, your typical line of people at the supermarket says 'so what?" Bees are a vital contributor to human life. A honey bee is involved, at some point in the food chain, in about one-third of everything we consume. Honey and beeswax are ingredients in products ranging from fruit drinks to furniture, but bees are most valuable as pollinators.
The use of bees as biomonitors has evolved over the years. "Twenty years ago scientists like me were working to convince others that insects were even affected by environmental pollutants and, if they were, that it mattered," Bromenshenk says. "Since then biologists have proved that not only are bees affected by environmental pollutants, but that they bring back detrimental chemicals to their colonies."
UMs research team has developed an ecotoxicological computer model called PC BEEPOP and a database, BEETOX, that assess risks posed by metals, radiation, pesticides and carcinogenic organics such as benzene and acetone. They hope to identify environmental threats early on, so that remediation can take place before further harm occurs.
Electronic HivesUMs electronic hives are abuzz with activity. Entrance counters monitor the coming and going of every bee. Pressure transducers track changes in hive weight. Traps empty into clock-driven trays and document the bees pollen-gathering. Sensors follow the bees efforts to stabilize the temperature and humidity in the brood nests. Sensors measure sound, and air flow indicators measure fanning activity as the bees attempt to cool the hive and drive off excess moisture from newly harvested nectar. An electronic weather station continuously monitors the weather. This data is fed into a bank of portable computers housed in long metal toolboxes near the hive. None of these electronic sensing capabilities is unique, but UMs hives are the first in the nation to be fully wired for all of this data. There are ten electronic hives at UM today, but Bromenshenks team hopes that in two years there will be thirty. "There are a myriad of questions we still need to answer," Bromenshenk says.
The electronic weather monitoring station, for example, may someday provide scientists with clues about how bees read the weather. "Something tells the bees the weathers going to change; they return to the hive when conditions appear to be fine, beating the storm every time," Bromenshenk says. "What's happening are they picking up on slight barometric pressure drops or what?"
The information gathered from the electronic hives has a wide range of uses. "There would be an advantage in having a kind of electronic simulator...so that pesticide developers and applicators can see, via computer, what will happen when certain steps are taken." Bromenshenk says.
The information Bromenshenks team is gathering may help educate beekeepers to properly manage their hives. For example, Bromenshenk says recent studies may help beekeepers control parasites that attack colonies. "Beekeepers have used menthol in their hives for quite some time to control tracheal mites," he says. "But traditionally menthol is often applied in the fall and new evidence indicates that may be a waste of time. Applying in the spring when the mites are infesting young bees may be the only effective way to suppress the parasite."
The artificial intelligence technology used in computer models enables researchers to perform more sophisticated data analysis. Artificial neural networks (computer software that can be trained to fingerprint chemical compounds) are used to analyze volatile chemicals found in beehives. Air samples taken from hives are analyzed and broken down into individual chemical components.
As sensing equipment has become more sophisticated, the sheer amount of data has become overwhelming. A two-week air sample taken from a hive last summer resulted in a five-inch pile of paper covered with millions of peaks and valleys for the individual chemical compounds detected. Feeding that data into the neural network, however, results in a more manageable forty-five pages of code, which a chemist can analyze. New software has also enabled the computer to distinguish components common to bees and the box the hive is in from chemicals foreign to the colony environment.
This new technology could lead to a more cost-effective way to monitor pollution. "Twenty years ago the EPA focused on the amount of a chemical that was found at a site," Bromenshenk says. "Today, our approach is more sophisticated. Just finding the pollutant doesnt answer the questions. What wed like to see is an emphasis not on, is it there, but is it there in a form thats available to living organisms and is it there in harmful amounts?" "We must determine the actual chemical soup that is found at most polluted sites," Bromenshenk says. "Bee colonies at such a site, used as a biomonitoring device, may help us more quickly and efficiently discover what the specific soup is made of and what effect it is having on bees and, by inference, other living organisms."
The bee teams work on electronic hives is gaining national recognition. The group was a finalist in the 1995 Computerworld- Smithsonian Awards for their creative use of modern information technology to improve our lives. "We were thrilled to be nominated in the area of energy and the environment," Dr. Bromenshenk says. "Nominees for this award are most often large corporations with huge resources. Its an honor to think that a department of The University of Montana, with limited funds was able to merit this recognition."
Bromenshenk has an even bigger dream: an on-line hive, accessible to anyone in the world with a modem and a computer terminal. "Just think, kids, scientists, anyone could ask, 'Hey, whats going on with the bees in Montana?' and find out the answer. We could set up the capacity to conduct interactive experiments. Students would be able to study the bee hive in real time...This is what makes science exciting and understandable for kids. The technology is here, all we need is the funding."
Despite the technological wonders that Bromenshenk and his team depend on, the work is still about bees, the researcher says. "The technology is there to help us see more clearly, to help us study a species with as little interference as possible and to enable us to interpret the data in subtler ways. But its the bees who provide us with the answers and then with new questions."