In a groundbreaking study, 5,000 honey bees in Australia are set to be fitted with tiny sensors in an effort to better understand Colony Collapse Disorder. The 2.5mm by 2.5mm Radio Frequency Identification sensors work much like a car’s e-tag, and scientists will use a technique called “swarm sensing” to study how changes in the environment impact the behavior of bee colonies.
The research is led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in conjunction with the University of Tasmania, and marks the first time that such a large number of insects have been used for environmental monitoring. In addition to trying to determine the driving factors of Colony Collapse Disorder—a global phenomenon where bees suddenly disappear from their hives—the study will also look for ways to halt the spread of the Varroa mite, the primary parasitic threat to bee colonies.
The scientists will also monitor the bees’ environment to look at the impact of pesticides on the insects, as well as seek out ways to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms. As CSIRO science leader Dr Paulo de Souza explains, “Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields… 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.”
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The tiny RFI sensors weigh around five milligrams, and are attached to the bees using tweezers and adhesive after the bees have been “soothed” to sleep through refrigeration. The painstaking process may appear peculiar enough but as Reuters notes, it gets stranger: “Some young bees, which tend to be hairier than older bees, need to be shaved before the sensor can be glued on.” As the bees are warmed and wake up, they proceed to return to their hive where their movements can be monitored. Dr. de Souza emphasized in a statement that “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.”
Once all 5,000 sensors are attached, CSIRO will be able to monitor the behavior of the honeybees as they pass through various ‘checkpoints’ that will scan the sensors. This data will then be compiled to create “comprehensive three dimensional model and visualize how these insects move through the landscape.”
These comprehensive models are expected to provide significant insight for the scientists. De Souza explains: “Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule. Any change in their behavior indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements, we’ll be able to recognize very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximize their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks.”
CISRO’s next step will be to make the sensors even smaller—just 1mm x 1mm—so as they can be attached to insects such as mosquitoes.