Researchers in the Department of Computer Science and BioFrontiers Institute are studying honeycomb formation in bees with the hope of one day recreating the same intricate and impressive hexagonal structures for other uses.
PhD student Golnar Gharooni Fard is leading the work with professors Orit Peleg, Francisco López Jiménez, and others. She is the first author on a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that studied how bees collectively adapt to their environment by 3D-printing experimental frames with a variety of constraints the insects may face in comb creation. We asked her about potential future applications for the research, where the work will go from here and about her time at CU Boulder.
Question: How would you describe the work and results of this paper? What are the applications in the real world from this research?
Answer: “Honeycomb is made of wax, which is an expensive and valuable asset for the hive. Bees need to consume eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. We also know that bees build the honeycomb in an efficient way, using regular hexagonal structures which minimizes the wax-to-space ratio. However, bees naturally nest in preexisting cavities or tree branches, and those can impose unstructured constraints on the overall geometry of the comb, making it uneven.
My goal is to identify the bees’ comb-building patterns experimentally and use those to design computational models that reproduce the same structures. The knowledge obtained from these models can then be used to explain similar structures in other real-world systems. Additionally, we can use the simple local rules that we learn from the patterns that bees build to design optimal structures in a distributive manner.”
Q: That sounds like bio-inspired or nature-inspired engineering – what do those terms mean to you? How does this work fit into that concept?
A: “In my view, nature is like a grand and successful laboratory with a database full of effective solutions to many of our scientific and technical problems. Bio-inspired engineering is where we seek to understand biological systems either because they are intrinsically interesting or important – like studies on the spread of cancer cells – or because the quantitative understanding and modeling might be extended to human-designed systems, like the design of small-scale flying devices.”
Q: Is this a research topic or area you were interested in before coming to CU Boulder?
A: “Yes. Even though I had very little experience in working with animals or insect groups before coming to CU, I have always been fascinated with animal behavior and the nature of complex interconnections, especially among social organisms. Before coming here, my research involved using ideas from nonlinear dynamics and chaotic models to improve the performance of metaheuristic optimization algorithms. However, I have always been interested in using my knowledge of nonlinear maps and models to study natural and biological social systems, which is the area I am working on now. So, in that sense it is quite a unique opportunity for me.”
Q: What is it like to work with professors Orit Peleg and Francisco López Jiménez on this project?
A: “I feel so lucky to be a part of such a diverse and collaborative team at Peleg lab. My direct advisor, Professor Peleg, has been very supportive, encouraging, and patient with me from the beginning of my PhD, as I entered a relatively new and exciting research field. Furthermore, under her support and supervision I have had the opportunity to mentor and gain assistance from several high school, undergrad, and master’s students, which has been an invaluable experience for me during my PhD years. In general, I have learned a great deal from both professors Peleg and Jiménez about how to manage and conduct interdisciplinary research in a diverse and collaborative atmosphere.”
“Crystallography of honeycomb formation under geometric frustrations” was supported by the University of Colorado Boulder RIO Seed Grant Program, and NSF grant 2210628. We also acknowledge funding from the University of Colorado Boulder, BioFrontiers Institute (internal funds). We thank Seneca Kristjonsdottir and Christopher Borke for bee management, Paul Bontempo and Ashley Atkins for their assistance with data collection and organization, Riley Perez, Hanna Larson, and Zoe Bloomfield for designing the 3D-printed frames and Olga Shishkov for reading and commenting on the manuscript. We thank professors Elizabeth Bradley, Greg Stephens, and members of the O.P. laboratory for insightful feedback and discussions.