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The buzz of the chase

Visit  Queen Mary University of London website

30 July 2008

Scientists from Queen Mary, University of London are helping to perfect a technique used to catch serial killers, by testing it on bumblebees.

Geographic profiling (GP) is a technique used by police forces around the world to help them prioritise lists of suspects in investigations of serial crimes. It uses the sites of a serial killer’s crimes to predict where killer is most likely to live.

Dr Nigel Raine, and Dr Steve Le Comber, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, along with Kim Rossmo, the former detective who invented the technique, have used this criminology technique to look at patterns of foraging in bees.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface the team found that by observing bees foraging in the lab, combined with computer model simulations, they could use GP to distinguish between different types of foraging behaviour. The work was funded by the Wellcome Trust, BBSRC and EPSRC.*

GP relies on two things; the fact that most serial crimes happen close to the killer’s home; and that the killer’s home is surrounded by a ‘buffer zone’ - an area where the opportunity to commit a crime is comparatively low. These two parameters allow criminologists to create a geoprofile, which shows the areas where the killer is most likely to live. The more accurate the GP model – the more precise the geoprofile and the quicker the police can track down the killer.

Dr Raine explains: “GP is interesting to biologists because it can tell us which strategies animals use when foraging. The approach works well for very different animals: from bees and bats to great white sharks.”

The research is also of interest to criminologists, as the experiments can be used to test the GP technique - something which is impossible to do with criminals, for obvious reasons. The results of the lab experiments allow the GP criminologists to perfect their technique, and predict the serial killer’s location with more accuracy.

Although GP has been applied to bat foraging data by two of the authors, this bee study is the first time that the assumptions of GP technique have been tested using an experiment. This study suggests that bees could create their own ‘buffer zone’ around the hive where they don’t forage, to reduce the risk of predators and parasites locating their nest.

The results showed that GP can be used to find the entrance to a bee hive, from observing the locations of the flowers that bees visit. This has implications for bee conservation. In future, GP could be applied to help locate bee nests, or areas of potential nesting habitat – a valuable tool for reversing the numbers of rare or endangered bumblebee species.

ENDS

Notes to editors

‘Geographic profiling applied to testing models of bumblebee foraging’ will be published in the online edition of Journal of the Royal Society Interface on 30 July 2008. doi:10.1098/rsif.2008.0242

The research was joint funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

A copy of the paper, high resolution images and video footage of the bees in action are all available on request.

Dr Nigel Raine and Dr Steve Le Comber are both available for interview.

About Queen Mary, University of London

Queen Mary, University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 15,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London, Queen Mary’s 2,800 staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three sectors: Science and Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Laws; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Over 80 per cent of Queen Mary’s research staff work in departments where research is of international or national excellence (RAE 2001).

The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries and 2,000 students on a unique collaborative degree programme in Beijing.

Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £200 million, research income worth £43 million, and generates employment and output worth £500 million to the UK economy each year.

Queen Mary, as a member of the 1994 Group of research-focused universities, has made a strategic commitment to the highest quality of research, but also to the best possible educational, cultural and social experience for its students. The College is unique amongst London's universities in being able to offer a completely integrated residential campus, with a 2,000-bed award-winning Student Village on its Mile End campus.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

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Siân Halkyard, Senior Communications Officer, Queen Mary, University of London

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