By Ellen Coulter
CSIRO is working with the University of Tasmania, beekeepers and fruit growers to trial the monitoring technology, in an attempt to improve honey bee pollination and productivity.
They are fitting tiny sensors to the insects, a process which sometimes involves shaving them first.
“This has been done before,” CSIRO science leader Paulo de Souza said.
“The difference here is about the size of the sensor. And the difference is the number; we’re talking about 5,000 bees.”
The sensors measure 2.5 millimetres by 2.5mm and act like a vehicle’s “e-TAG”, recording when the bees pass particular checkpoints.
Researchers can use the signals from the sensors to find out how the bees move through the landscape and understand changes in their behaviour.
They are also looking at the impacts of pesticides on the honey bees and the drivers of a condition decimating bee populations globally.
“If it impacts the bees, it impacts the whole industry that is producing food,” Dr de Souza said.
“This should help us understand optimal productivity conditions, as well as further our knowledge of the cause of colony collapse disorder.”
Bees put to sleep, shaved, fitted with sensor
The process of gluing on the tiny sensors to the bees is delicate but quick.
“We take the bee into a cold place, usually to a fridge about five degrees Celsius, for five minutes and that is enough to have the bees sleeping,” Dr de Souza said.
“We take them out again and attach it while they’re sleeping. In five minutes they wake up again and they’re ready to fly.”
But some need to be shaved first.
“Very young bees, they’re very hairy. At times we need to do something to help us,” Dr de Souza said.
Researchers say the insects are not harmed by the glue or the sensors.
“It doesn’t disturb the way the bee will see or the way the bee will fly, they just work normally,” Dr de Souza said.
“Each sensor weight is about five milligrams. This is about 20 per cent of what the bee can carry.
“So the bee can carry a lot of weight in pollen, in nectar, so this is like someone carrying a small backpack.”
Next step: shrink sensors to fit fruit flies, mosquitoes
Researchers are releasing about 20 honey bees a day from hives in southern Tasmania.
The bees travel up to 700 metres from the hives, but always return, making it easy to pinpoint changes in their behaviour.
Researchers hope their work will help farmers and fruit growers, who rely on the bees’ pollination, to improve their practices.
The next stage of the project is to shrink the sensors to only one millimetre, so they can be attached to much smaller insects such as fruit flies and mosquitoes.