A connected flower to fight the decline of bees

Here is a novel participatory science experiment between high school students and a CNRS researcher: the creation of a "connected artificial flower" to study the foraging behaviour of bees. Little is known about how bees select flowers and move between them. By understanding them better and making it possible to decipher the behaviour of these pollinating insects, recommendations can be made to better protect them.
Un unprecedented educational experiment called "Bees - Biodiversity" is being conducted at the Lycée Julliot de la Morandière in Granville (Normandy) in collaboration with a CNRS researcher in order to better understand the problem of the decline of bees.
Over the past 30 years or so, the decline of pollinating insects in industrialized countries has generated great concern for the future of food production and the balance of human, animal and plant life. Although the causes of this decline (pesticides, pollutants, predators, parasites and pathogens, malnutrition) have long been identified, their mode of action on bees remains less well known.
With the return of spring, the bees should be in full activity, collecting pollen and nectar in profusion. This year, however, many beekeepers are being deprived of this opportunity because of the disastrous mortality of their bees.
For several weeks now, the French National Union of Beekeeping (UNA) has been receiving calls from beekeepers in different regions of France reporting abnormal mortality in their colonies at the end of winter. In the Dordogne, nearly 2500 colonies have been counted as dead. In Charente-Maritime, beekeepers report a catastrophic situation. Beekeepers in Brittany are also victims of unexplained large-scale mortality phenomena. In the Aisne, the situation is critical. Certain departments such as Creuse and Doubs have reported significant mortality, but only in arable farming areas. For all the regions concerned, the phenomenon has not spared any type of beekeeper. Amateurs, semi-professionals or professionals... all are affected (Source : UNAF).
In order to better understand this problem and propose concrete solutions, it is necessary to study the behaviour of bees in more detail. Mathieu LIHOREAU, and his research team at the Centre de recherche sur la cognition animale (CRCA- CNRS/Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier) in Toulouse, is particularly interested in foraging behaviour. How does a bee discover a flower? How does it choose to visit it? How much nectar and pollen does it collect? How and when does it decide to revisit it? Does it develop circuits between several flowers? And how does it return to the nest?
Despite more than a century of research, these questions are only partially resolved because of the difficulty of studying the behaviour of these flying insects in their natural environment, i.e. in areas of several square kilometres, all day long and 7 days a week. Rather than trying to follow the bees individually, the researchers decided to use artificial flowers designed in 3D that will attract the bees to selected locations, while controlling their shape, colour, odour, and the amount of nectar and pollen they deliver. To be useful, this system will need to be able to recognize the bees in order to record their passage and then fill up with nectar and/or pollen in a desired flow.
As part of an educational project and with the support of the Dassault Systèmes Foundation, students from the Lycée Julliot de la Morandière in Granville have been working with Mathieu LIHOREAU, a CNRS researcher at the CRCA (CNRS/Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier). Together, they imagined this connected flower, capable of distributing pollen and nectar in controlled quantities. Thus, they intend to attract hymenoptera in order to better understand how they function in the laboratory.
"It is first and foremost a research tool. Despite several millennia of domestication and more than a century of modern research on the behaviour and cognition of these insects, very little is known about how bees select the flowers available in their environment and move between them. This "artificial" flower, placed in the middle of natural flowers, attracts bees to a resource of defined quality, in a specific location and for a desired duration. We have therefore devised a system - vaguely resembling a flower - that delivers controlled quantities of artificial nectar and pollen, records the visits of bees that come to forage on the flower, and identifies them individually. Eventually, these flowers will be able to communicate with each other to create true "connected fields. explains the researcher in the CNRS newspaper.
With the help of Mathieu LIHOREAU and a teacher, the high school students will contribute to the scientific project and implement the entire production chain of the flower: from 3D modeling via Dassault Systèmes software to 3D printing. So a prototype now exists, now it remains to improve it, i.e. to make it "replicable" at low cost, for mass production and laboratory use.
"This project has a twofold interest. On the one hand, it enables the development of a prototype experimental device that can be used for fundamental research on the biology of bees. On the other hand, it makes it possible to raise the awareness of pupils who do not necessarily follow a scientific course to the key issues of biodiversity. » says Mathieu Liohreau.
"Using 3D, students have designed a connected flower that will help protect biodiversity. This experience also enabled them to acquire new skills: use of virtual worlds, teamwork, collaboration with professionals from research and the business world - all of which will serve them in their future professional careers. It is these values of skill sharing and collaboration in the service of research and the improvement of educational content thanks to virtual worlds that the Dassault Systèmes Foundation wishes to promote. », says Thibault de Tersant, President of the Dassault Systèmes Foundation.
"The students applied all the multidisciplinary skills acquired in their training with tenfold enthusiasm and for good reason: they went from being students to collaborating with Mathieu Lihoreau, and were able to listen and respond to his needs", says Cyril André, Professor at the Lycée Julliot de la Morandière.
Beyond the scientific results, the students became aware of the usefulness of all the lessons (technology, observation of the floral world, discovery of the beekeeping world...). Fascinated by this challenge, they designed an operational prototype using 3D software. Such a program stimulates the creative spirit and leads to innovation. Thanks to the technological and financial support of the Dassault Systèmes Foundation and the use of virtual worlds, students and researchers can test the real world and thus design their project.
Such a project should make young people aware of environmental issues... For Mathieu Lihoreau, "Participatory science approaches are in full development. For us, these projects are interesting for several reasons. On the one hand, they make it possible to mobilize a large work force made up of people who often have an enlightening perspective, outside the academic world. On the other hand, they make it possible to make a large public aware of our research themes, sometimes social, as here the problem of the decline of pollinating insects. For this connected flower experience, the students were involved beyond the expectations of their teachers: they even presented their project at the Olympiades des métiers in Caen last April. Several of them discovered the world of bees and the problems linked to their decline, themes that are not necessarily addressed in the technical fields... We are increasingly using this participative approach. With my colleagues, we have launched other larger-scale projects such as EuroFrelon 2017 (link is external), which seeks the help of amateurs to trap Asian hornets in their gardens or apiaries throughout Europe. The aim is to better understand the very rapid invasion of this predator, which was introduced in the south of France in 2004. I am convinced that participatory science can make a major contribution to research...". (Source: CNRS Journal).
To go further :
- Gathering on Thursday 7 June at 10 am on the Esplanade des Invalides, on the initiative of Générations Futures: a day of national mobilisation to ask the State and the President of the Republic in particular to urgently trigger a plan of exceptional support for French beekeepers; to restore a viable environment for bee colonies and pollinators.
- Book" Listening to the insects - The voices of the infinitely small " by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck - Edition Le Souffle d'or, February 2018

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