Honey bees in Australia are being fitted with sensors as part of a research program to monitor the insects and their environment using so-called swarm sensing.
The research is being led by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms as well as help understand the drivers of bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a condition decimating honey bee populations worldwide.
Up to 5,000 sensors, measuring 2.5mm x 2.5mm are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, before being released into the wild. According to CSIRO, it is the first time such large numbers of insects have been used for environmental monitoring.
In a statement project science leader, Dr Paulo de Souza said: ‘Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields. A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 per cent.’
‘Around one third of the food we eat relies on pollination, but honey bee populations around the world are crashing because of the dreaded Varroa mite and Colony Collapse Disorder. Thankfully, Australia is currently free from both of those threats.’
The research will also look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of commonly used chemicals.
‘Using this technology, we aim to understand the bee’s relationship with its environment. This should help us understand optimal productivity conditions as well as further our knowledge of the cause of colony collapse disorder,’ said Dr de Souza.
The sensors are tiny Radio Frequency Identification sensors that record when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. The information is then sent remotely to a central location where researchers can use the signals from the 5,000 sensors to build a comprehensive three dimensional model and visualise how these insects move through the landscape.
‘Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule. Any change in their behaviour indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements, we’ll be able to recognise very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause,’ said Dr de Souza.
To attach the sensors, the bees are refrigerated for a short period, which puts them into a rest state long enough for the sensors to be secured to their backs with an adhesive. After a few minutes, the bees awaken and are ready to return to their hive and start gathering valuable information.
‘This is a non-destructive process and the sensors appear to have no impact on the bee’s ability to fly and carry out its normal duties,’ Dr de Souza said.
The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to 1mm so they can be attached to smaller insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies.