A bee with its electronic 'backpack'

Bees given RFID 'backpacks' for research project

Thousands of bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors to help study the insects’ relationship with the environment.

The CSIRO-led swarm-sensing programme aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms as well as gain insight into the drivers of bee colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition that is damaging honey bee populations worldwide.

Up to 5,000 sensors, measuring 2.5x2.5mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, which are then released into the wild.

The sensors are tiny RFID devices that respond when the insect passes a checkpoint. The information is transmitted to a location where researchers can use the signals to build a comprehensive 3D model and visualise how these insects move through the landscape.

Project leader Dr Paulo de Souza explained: “Around one-third of the food we eat relies on pollination, but honey bee populations around the world are crashing because of the Varroa mite and CCD. Thankfully, Australia is currently free from both of those threats.”

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.

To attach the sensors, the bees are refrigerated for a short period, which puts them into a rest state. After a few minutes, they wake up and are ready to return to their hive. The process does not seem to impair their normal activities.

“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,” Dr de Souza added.

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.

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