Australian researchers are attaching sensor-stuffed ‘backpacks’ onto honey bees, for science

Honey bees are critical to pollinating a third of the world’s food supply, but their population is on the decline due to unknown factors that are threatening their health. A research team lead by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is working with the Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health (GIHH) in a new study designed to identify factors that may be harming the global bee population.

This decline in the bee population began in the late 1990s when beekeepers worldwide noticed a sudden and precipitous decrease in the number of bees and honey bee colonies. Research suggests pesticides, pathogens and climate change may contribute to this decline, but no single cause has been identified. This latest study will use small RFID micro-sensors that are attached to individual bees using tweezers and super glue. Each sensor is like a license plate, containing a unique code to identify individual bees in a larger population. The sensors do not interfere with the bee and will remain affixed for the duration of the bee’s life.

bee backpack

To collect behavioral data, the researchers will use solar-powered Intel Edison boards inside the hive and receivers placed in the vicinity of the hive to record the movements of the bees. The data collected from this sensor system will help scientists identify stresses that influence the movement and behavioral patterns of the hives that are being studied.

“The tiny technology allows researchers to analyze the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate,” Professor Paulo de Souza, CSIRO Science Leader, said. “We’re also investigating what key factors, or combination of factors, lead to bee deaths on mass.”

Initially, thousands of bees in Australia will be outfitted with these RFID backpacks in a multi-year initiative. Scientists hope to expand this program globally to 1000 hives worldwide with more than 2.5 million bees equipped with this tracking technology.

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