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    Honey Bees Are Mapping Their Movements with Tiny Sensor Backpacks

    Written by

    Victoria Turk

    Editor, UK

    We’ve known for years that bees are disappearing at an unsustainable rate, but we still don’t know exactly why. Researchers in Australia are now hoping to gain an insight into the behaviour of bee swarms, by attaching tiny RFID sensors to 5,000 honey bees.

    The sudden disappearance of bees is known as colony collapse disorder and it’s a huge problem for us as well as our stripy, winged friends.

    “One third of what goes into our mouths relies on pollination,” explained the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, in the video above. “Without bees we don’t have apples,” added a local apple grower. And bees don’t just help produce things like fruit; they’re also pivotal in the production of beef (as cows rely on pollinated crops for food). 

    Image via CSIRO

    Australia’s bees don’t yet have a problem with colony collapse disorder or other major threats such as the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that has killed honey bees in every country except Australia, but the researchers are keen to learn more about what affects bees’ productivity before they’re faced with these problems. The sensors could also give them an insight into which conditions best suit pollination and lead to crops that are quite literally more fruitful.

    To attach the tiny 2.5mm-long sensors to the bees, researchers in Tasmania refrigerated the insects—which essentially puts them to sleep—and then attached the little RFID backpacks to them using tweezers and adhesive. According to a Reuters report, “Some young bees, which tend to be hairier than older bees, need to be shaved before the sensor can be glued on.”

    When the bees then fly past one of many data loggers in the area, their geographic location is sent to a central system, where the scientists can build 3D images of their movements.

    "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 CSIRO science leader Paulo de Souza. As bees are usually very habitual creatures, any change in their behaviour is likely due to a change in their environment, so this kind of monitoring can shed light on the environmental factors that affect them.

    Image via CSIRO

    One such factor could be pesticides, some of which have been shown in past studies to wreak havoc on the pollinators even when they were thought to be bee-safe. As some of the sensor-carrying bees in this new study will be feeding at sites where trace levels of pesticidal chemicals are present, the researchers will be able to see if, and how, their behaviour is affected.

    And while the plight of bees is of great importance to anyone who wants to eat food in the future, the sensor technology could also be adapted to other applications. 

    “We could use it to observe, say, pest movement: fruit flies, moths—so codling moth in orchards—but also disease vectors like malaria-carrying mosquitoes,” said Dr. Stephen Quarrell of the University of Tasmania, which is working with CSIRO on the project. “Anything that moves, we can tag.” 

    They’re now working on making the sensors even smaller at around one millimetre long, so they can fit on the backs of these pests. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to wearable tech for bugs.