honey bee with sensor
January 21, 2014

Swarm Sensing Project To Monitor Australian Honey Bees Using Tiny Sensors

[ Watch the Video: What's The New Buzz On Saving Honeybees? ]

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Scientists are teaming up to fit tiny sensors onto honey bees in Australia to monitor the insects and understand the drivers behind Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Honeybees across the world are facing CCD, threatening populations and causing concern among scientists. A team at CSIRO is leading the research initiative to try and learn more about CCD, as well as monitor honey bee pollination and productivity on farms.

Researchers are equipping 5,000 tiny sensors to the back of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania and then sending them back out into the wild as part of a world-first study to monitor the insects.

"Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields. A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 percent," CSIRO science leader Dr Paulo de Souza, who leads the swarm sensing project, said in a statement. "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."

The team will be looking at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites where trace amounts of pesticide can be found.

"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," De Souza said.

The sensors work similarly to a vehicle’s e-tag by recording when an insect passes a particular checkpoint. Once a bee has passed a checkpoint, information is sent remotely to a central location where researchers can use the signals from the 5,000 sensors to build a comprehensive 3D model. This model will help scientists get a visualization of how these insects move through the landscape.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule. Any change in their behavior indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements, we'll be able to recognize very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximize their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks," Dr de Souza said.

In order to attach the sensors to the bees, the insects are refrigerated for a short period, placing them in a resting state long enough for the sensors to be secured to their backs. After a few minutes, the bees wake up from their slumber and return to their hive to begin gathering valuable information.

"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," Dr de Souza said.

This study could help farmers and fruit growers improve land management, as well as benefit from this free pollination service. Next, the team plans to reduce the size of the sensors so they can be attached to small insects.