Bee behaviour tracked with new uRFID tags

Two new technological developments are helping ecologists to monitor the behaviour of bees out in the field and away from the hive.

The first breakthrough, a lighter RFID tag that can be attached to bees while still allowing them to fly was developed by ecologists Dr Sarah Barlow, Dr Bruce Pavlik and Mark O’Neil of software developers Tumbling Dice. The new uRFID can track bees at a range of 1.2m – a huge increase from previous RFID tags.

Dr Barlow explained how why the new tag was particularly significant for insect research.

She said: “This is a huge breakthrough. Until now, this kind of passive tag which was light enough and small enough to be carried by a bee only had a range of one cm which meant that the detector unit had to be placed on a hive and it detected when a bee passed very close to it when it returning to its nest.

“But these new tags are still light enough for it to be carried by a bumble bee but they have a much wider range so we’re now able to place the detector out into the field – in flowering patches for example – and for the first time track bee movements in the landscape.”

Dr Barlow hopes that with further development, the uRFID tags could be used in research to uncover why certain insects are declining in numbers.

She said: “We’ve developed them to a prototype stage and now we’re looking to secure further funding to further develop these tags and demonstrate them in the field and apply them to answering the kind of ecological questions that will help us to understand why pollinators are in decline.”

The second new technology is a motion detection system called Rana which captures specific moving objects and compresses the footage into a time-lapse video. Dr Barlow explained how using Rana has been beneficial to her research as it ignores irrelevant movement and focuses on targeted interactions.

She said: “It’s a motion detection system that can be used for monitoring small scale biological interaction such as bees visiting flowers. It differs from motion detection systems that are currently available because it recognises that the object is moving but also the size and the shape of that object.

“That helps to reduce the camera from recording non-target movement. For example, a flower moving in the wind would mostly be ignored and the output of that is a time-compressed movie. So we’re able to use Rana in the field for making these observations over long periods of time. But the movies that we see have been time-compressed so we only see the interesting footage.”

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