Researchers in Australia are taking a high-tech approach to understanding how environmental factors affect bees and potential cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition that is hurting bee populations worldwide. CSIRO is working with the University of Tasmania and local farmers and bee keepers to tag 5,000 bees in Tasmania with tiny sensors that will allow them to track the insects. The project called "swarm sensing" is the largest so far that tracks insects for environmental monitoring.
"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," CSIRO science leader Dr. Paulo de Souza said.
"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."
The sensors are tiny Radio Frequency Identification sensors that are similar to a vehicle's e-tag. Information is sent back to a central location when the bees pass checkpoints, which will let the researchers build a 3D model of how the bees move through the area.
The bees are refrigerated briefly to put them in a rest state and then the 2.5mm x 2.5 mm sensors are applied to their backs with an adhesive. The sensors don't affect the bees' ability to fly or carry out normal activities and they will allow the researcher to look at behavior patterns and understand things like how feeding at sites where there are trace amounts of pesticides affect their normal productivity.
"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," Dr. de Souza said.
The information will help farmers and fruit tree growers to manage their sites to be safer for bees and encourage bee pollination.
In the future, the researchers hope to reduce the sensor size down to 1 mm so they can be used to monitor smaller insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies.