Busy bees serve
A technique known as 'swarm sensing' is being used by the CSIRO to monitor thousands of honey bees and their environment.
The program involves the bees being fitted with tiny sensors as part of a world-first research program which aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms.
It is hoped the research will also help in the understanding of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition decimating honey bee populations worldwide.
Up to 5,000 sensors, measuring 2.5mm x 2.5 mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, before they are released into the wild.
Project leader for CSIRO, Paulo de Souza said honey bees played a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops relied on to increase yields.
“A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 per cent," Dr de Souza said.
"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."
He said the research would 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.
"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," Dr de Souza said.
He said the sensors were tiny radio frequency identification sensors that worked in a similar way to a vehicle's e-tag, recording when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. The information was then sent remotely to a central location where researchers could use the signals from the 5,000 sensors to build a comprehensive three-dimensional model and visualise how the insects moved 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,” Dr de Souza said.
“If we can model their movements, we'll be able to recognise very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximise their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks."
To attach the sensors, 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 valuable information.
The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to only 1mm so they can be attached to smaller insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies.
Edition 400, 11 March 2014