Honey bees with sensors swarm over Hobart

Research may shed light on cause of Colony Collapse Disorder

Researchers have attached RFID sensors to honey bees in Hobart. Credit: CSIRO

Researchers have attached RFID sensors to honey bees in Hobart. Credit: CSIRO

CSIRO researchers are sticking RFID sensors to honey bees in an effort to improve bee pollination and productivity on farms.

The “swarm sensing” project in Hobart is also expected to shed light on the drivers of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition decimating honey bee populations worldwide, the CSIRO said. And it will look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of commonly used chemicals.

"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, Paulo de Souza.

“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.”

To better understand how bees are affected by the environment, the researchers plan to attach up to 5,000 square sensors measuring 2.5mm on each side to the backs of bees in Hobart. CSIRO said it’s the first time so many insects have been used for environmental monitoring.

To attach the sensors, researchers refrigerate the bees for a short period—long enough to put them into a rest state—and then apply the sensors using an adhesive. After a few minutes the bees awaken and return to their hive.

"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," de Souza said.

The sensors themselves use RFID technology and work in a similar way to a vehicle’s e-tag, recording when the insect passes a given checkpoint. The information is then sent remotely to a central location where researchers can build a 3D model visualising how the bees move through the landscape.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule,” de Souza said. “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.”

The information is expected to help farmers and fruit growers better understand how to take advantage of bees’ free pollination services.

Besides CSIRO, the bee project involves the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers in Hobart and fruit growers around Tasmania.

Bees will not have an insect exclusive on the sensors for long. The CSIRO said it hopes to eventually reduce the size of the sensors to only 1mm square so that they can be attached to smaller insects including fruit flies and mosquitoes.

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