19th Jan 2014

Honey Bees Equipped with Sensor Backpacks

If you care about what you’re going to eat in the future, you’d better start caring about bees. Scientists have known for a while that the world’s honey bee population is declining and it’s a giant problem because they’re a vital part of the ecosystem—about one third of the food that goes into our mouths relies on the pollination process.

The decline is thought to be related to the Varroa destructor (a parasitic mite), which seems to be a contributor to a wider phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, where bee colonies spiral into abrupt decline and simply disappear.

Interestingly, Australia is free from these threats so far, and researchers want to find out why. In Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, researchers from the CSIRO recently fitted tiny sensors to the backs of 5,000 wild bees to monitor the population. To do this, they refrigerated the bees to make them sleepy, shaved a little part of their back, and quickly glued down the sensors before releasing them back into the wild.

The sensors only weigh five milligrams so they don’t impede the bees at all. ‘The bee can carry a lot of weight in pollen, in nectar, so this is like someone carrying a small backpack,’ explains Dr de Souza, CSIRO scientist. The sensors will provide vital data to help researchers construct a three dimensional model of the bees’ behaviour. As de Souza notes, ‘Using this technology, we aim to understand the bee’s relationship with its environment,’ and thus understand how they work best and what might cause a population collapse.

In the near future, the CSIRO hopes to scale the sensors down to 1 mm, so they can tag smaller insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies to study their populations too.

Watch the CSIRO’s video

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