Bees are being fitted with RFID tags in an effort to provide new insights into the threats facing the bee populations and the pollination services they provide.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is working with the Newcastle-based Tumbling Dice to trial a 4.8mm x 8mm sized microchip that can be glued to bees to track their movements.
According to Kew, the reading distance of the new miniaturised radio frequency identification (RFID) tags will enable researchers to detect tagged bees up to a 1.2m diameter from a detecting unit. Small tagging devices currently available only allow bees to be detected at distances of up to 1cm once they exit or return to their hives.
Tumbling Dice’s new technology was trialled by Kew scientist Dr Sarah Barlow on bumblebees in Kew’s Quarantine House.
A purpose built compartment inside the glasshouse had a bee proof screen with detection devices. Each RFID tag emits a unique signal to identify individual insects that are picked up by a detector unit.
The technology’s application in the wild could see a network of field-deployed detectors positioned within patches of flowers positioned around the landscape to track the distances and paths of tagged bees. A similar project was launched by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in 2014 that involved fitting sensors measuring 2.5mm x 2.5mm onto honey bees.
In the current project, RFID tags have been glued to the bees’ backs using superglue. Before the tags were attached with tweezers the bees were cooled for approximately 10 minutes to make them more docile.
In a statement Dr Barlow said: “Although tracking technologies exist they are limited by size, range and reliability and until now, tags with mid-to-long range detection were too large to be carried by honeybees and worker bumblebees and have been used on larger insects and birds.
“These tags are a big step forward in radio technology and no-one has a decent medium to long range tag yet that is suitable for flying on small insects. This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape. This piece of the puzzle, of bee behaviour, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline.”