Thousands of bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors as part of a world-first research program to monitor the environment via swarm sensing.
Up to 5,000 sensors, measuring 2.5mm x 2.5mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, before being released into the wild.
The CSIRO says this is the first time such large numbers of insects have been used for environmental monitoring.
The research aims to improve pollination and honey productivity as well as help understand the drivers of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition decimating honey bee populations worldwide.
CSIRO science leader Paulo de Souza, who leads the project, says bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture.
“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,” Dr de Souza says. “Thankfully, Australia is currently free from both of those threats.”
The research will also look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of commonly used chemicals.
The sensors are tiny Radio Frequency Identification devices which work in a similar way to a vehicle’s e-tag, recording when the insect passes a particular checkpoint.
The information is then sent remotely to a central location where researchers can use the signals to build a comprehensive 3D model and visualise 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 behaviour indicates a change in their environment.
“We’ll be able to recognise very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause,” Dr de Souza said. “This will help us understand how to maximise their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks.”
Understanding bee behaviour will give farmers and fruit growers improved management knowledge enabling them to increase the benefit received from this free pollination service. It will also help them to gain and maintain access to markets through improving the way we monitor for pests.
The bees are refrigerated for a short period which puts them into a rest state long enough for the tiny sensors to be secured to their backs with an adhesive.
After a few minutes, the bees awaken and are ready to return to their hive and start gathering information.
The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to only 1 mm so they can be attached to smaller insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies.