Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have fitted 5,000 tiny sensors, measuring just 2.5mm squared to the backs of honey bees in Hobart, Tasmania, before releasing them into the wild.
Scientists are worried about the world's declining honey bee population, which could devastate the crops and lead to food shortages across the globe. Now, in a bid to stop the rapid decline, experts have fitted ‘backpack’ sensors to 5,000 bees in Australia to unravel why colonies there do not seem to be affected by the ‘colony collapse disorder’ that is decimating bee populations in other countries. The research aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms as well.
It is the first time such large numbers of insects have been used for environmental monitoring. ‘Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields’ said CSIRO science leader Dr Paulo de Souza, who is heading up the swarm sensing project. ‘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,’ he added.
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. Here, crops are sprayed with pesticides.
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,’ said Dr de Souza. ‘This should help us understand optimal productivity conditions as well as further our knowledge of the cause of colony collapse disorder,’ in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. The bees’ high-tech backpacks are tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sensors that record when an insect passes a particular check point. 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 discover how the insects move through the landscape. Dr de Souza said: ‘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. 'This will help us understand how to maximise their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks.' The scientists involved in the project believe that understanding bee behaviour will give farmers and fruit growers improved management knowledge, which will help them increase the benefit received from nature’s free pollination service. The researchers are working with the University of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers in Hobart and fruit growers around the state to trial the technology. The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to only 1mm so they can be attached to smaller insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies.