Current Research

My research uses ideas and methods from complex systems, computational modeling and physics to investigate the collective dynamics of honeybee interactions.

  1. Collective Food Exchange/Distribution among Honeybees

    Division of labor, a hallmark of honeybee behavior, allows the assignment of different tasks to different individuals to improve efficiency of the colony as a whole. An acute instance of a division of labor occurs as part of their feeding process, where some forager bees collect food and share via food regurgitation, essentially “charging” hivemates who do not have access to nearby energy sources. This process, termed trophallaxis, allows fast and efficient dissemination of nutrients and is crucial for the colony’s survival.  This behavior is not only an important feeding mechanism but also serves as a means for communication among hivemates, allowing them to distribute information about the quality of the new nectar sources or about food requirements of the brood nest. It is considered to be one of the most central features of eusociality in honeybees and is integral to their survival and growth as a colony.
    It amazes me how a group of bees manage to coordinate the complex task of food distribution with such high levels of efficiency and ensure the feeding of non-foragers and brood within the hive. In particular, think about a scenario where a bee just flies back to hive from a foraging trip and there are many mouth to feed! She faces this dilemma: should it feed another hivemate at the same spot on the honeycomb or move to feed another at a new place? This decision making process that occurs as a result of food-exchange behavior causes a dramatic shift in the morphology of the collection of bees. Based on our series of laboratory experiments with fed/deprived honeybees we now know that initially, the individuals are distributed sparsely across the arena. After the fed bees are introduced, clusters appear. Eventually, the clusters dissipate.
    The main goal of this research is to discover the connections between the individual honeybee behavior and the collective food exchange dynamics that it produces within the hive. Furthermore, social insects have always been a reliable source of inspiration for the design of artificial multi-agent systems, optimization algorithms, and robotics. They are evolutionarily optimized, balancing many simultaneous constraints, and proven to be robust against failures of the individuals. These are critical challenges in swarm robotics, and I hope that as this research grows, our results can inspire useful solutions to problems in that field.

2. Collective Comb Construction under Geometric Frustrations in Honeybee Colonies

The wax–made comb of the honey bee is a masterpiece of animal architecture, constructed distributively by thousands of bees who create a highly regular hexagonal structure.  This storage structure is essential to  the  survival  of  the  colony  and  hence  constructed  in  a  near-optimal  minimization  of  the  wax-to-storage  space ratio, due to the high energy cost of wax production.   Perhaps  even  more  enigmatic  than  the  regular  structure  is  the  distributed  nature  of  its  construction, where the worker bees simultaneously manipulate small pieces of wax to collectively construct the comb structure. As honeybees build their nests in pre–existing tree cavities, they grew accustomed to dealing with the presence of boundaries and geometric constrains, resulting in non-regular hexagons and topological defects.  According to several observations the modifications to the regular pattern extend over several cells, suggesting long range awareness of constraints.
The goal of this project is to study how bees collectively adapt to their environment to regulate and heal the honeycomb structure. Specifically, we are interested in the following questions: (1) Are the irregularities in the honeycomb pattern the result of a global planning process, that accounts for distant frustration sources, or a local reaction to the immediate surroundings of a given cell? and (2) Is the honeycomb pattern related to the optimum solutions consistently found in a diverse range of self-organized crystallographic systems under geometric frustration?
Instead of relaying on naturally occurring sources of geometric frustration, and to be able to systematically repeat our experiments, we 3D-print frames with imprinted honeycomb foundations and coat them with a thin layer of wax. The honeycomb foundation is only introduced to small regions of the panel, and the geometry and patterning of the panels is designed to deliberately introduce geometric frustration in the system, such that the hive will not be able to construct a regular hexagonal lattice simply by extending the provided foundation.
Our preliminary results from analyzing fully-built 3D-printed frames show clear evidence of reoccurring, self-organized patterns created by the bees to overcome the orientation miss-match between the panels and to fill the gaps between them. In addition to the experiments, we are also designing a computational model of lightweight self-organized pattern formation to simulate a similar structure. In this context, modeling can be viewed as an effective tool to design stimuli whose responses will either validate or disprove a given hypothesis. We believe that this interwoven theory–experiment approach will allow for a robust model validation by making phenomenological predictions, testable with the biological and robotic systems.

Raw data– wax-made honeycomb built on a 3D-printed experimental frame

In case you are wondering where we keep our bees, here’s a cool picture of our bee yard from last summer.

Our beautiful bee yard
Some free comb art!

If any of these topics sound interesting to you or if you have any thoughts or ideas in similar research or just want to chat, I’d love to schedule a time and talk with you. So, either shoot me an email at golnar.gharoonifard@colorado.edu, or message me on one of the social media links below.