With honey bee populations in many parts of the world teetering on the edge, scientists are scrambling to try and figure out what exactly is driving their decline. From pesticides and habitat loss to parasites and extreme weather, many different causes have been implicated. This has led to an international group of scientists, in association with beekeepers and tech companies, to develop minuscule sensors to track the movements of bees.
Weighing just 5.4 milligrams (0.0002 ounces), which is lighter than the total weight of pollen bees normally collect in a trip, the tiny sensors are glued to the backs of individual insects and will stay there permanently. They will be used in conjunction with Intel’s Edison boards, which will be fitted into the entrance to the hive. Around the size of half a credit card, they will log data about the bees' comings and goings.
“What we are gathering with the sensors is environmental information from where the bees have been,” Gary Fitt, from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), told AFP. CSIRO is heading the Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health. The sensors will allow the researchers to monitor any changes in bees behavior, for example how long they forage for, or what they’re up to in their hives. “We can then see if we can interpret those changes to tell us how they are responding to different stresses,” Fitt added.
The scientists at CSIRO have already managed to tag 10,000 honey bees in Tasmania and plan on sending the tech out to Brazil, North America and Europe in order to get a global perspective on what could be causing population losses. Using the same approaches and asking similar questions to standardize the studies, eventually they want to have around 1,000 hives fitted with the Edison boards, and over 2.5 million individual bees tagged.
The tags are effectively like the tiny e-tags found on cars. Each one has an individual number and will record the time each bee spends away from the hive, how far they travel, and their level of exposure to pesticides and air pollution. Every time a sensor passes by the Edison board this data is logged and then sent wirelessly to scientists for interpretation.
Australia is the perfect control for studies looking into honey bee behavior and their decline. While in almost all other places, from Brazil to the United Kingdom, the deadly Varroa mite has spread and infected hives causing them to die, it is yet to reach Australia. This puts the country in a special, yet precarious position, with the looming threat that the parasites will eventually spread here and devastate the industry.
It is hoped that this massive study of how the bees are coping will help to better inform management plans and how to deal with the multitude of threats currently facing honey bees today.