Varshney helps establish bee-identifying limits
Allie Arp, CSL
8/28/2019 1:34:54 PM
Honey bees are important to global plant life, but studying their social behavior is tricky. It is difficult to tell one bee from another due to their small size, busy nature, and lack of distinguishing physical characteristics. Internationally renowned bee expert Gene Robinson, IGB Director and Swanlund Chair at Illinois, came up with the idea of using barcodes to tell bees apart from each other – a prospect that has many challenges, not the least of which is creating a barcode that is small enough to fit on a bee.
That is where Varshney comes in. Varshney and his collaborators at the National University of Singapore have established the fundamental limits of barcode design; in other words, they have determined how few symbols have to be in a barcode in order to reliably identify a bee.
“This work depends on identifying different bees using barcodes of a given size, given that the pictures of the bees may be noisy or obstructed in various ways,” said Varshney, co-author on the recently accepted "The Bee-Identification Problem: Bounds on the Error Exponent." “One can think of images of barcodes as information-bearing signals, observed through noise, and so their optimal design is very much a mathematical problem.”
The team used information theory to determine upper and lower bounds for this math challenge. In addition, the group discovered that jointly decoding the identities of groups of bees was much more accurate than decoding the barcodes bee-by-bee.
The ability to determine the fundamental limits of barcodes and identification as a concept can be applied to other research in the animal kingdom and outside of it. One particular setting Varshney is interested in is the “penguin identification problem.”