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Tiny Sensors To Track Secret Life Of Bees

posted 20 Jan 2014, 05:13 by Mpelembe   [ updated 20 Jan 2014, 05:14 ]

Thousands of honey bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors as part of a world-first research program to monitor the insects and their environment. Scientists are hoping the tracking devices will provide answers to better crop production and the mysterious global bee decline known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

HOBARTTASMANIAAUSTRALIA (JANUARY 15, 2013) (ABC) -  The researchers, from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), are fitting up to 5000 bees with tiny sensors, measuring 2.5mm x 2.5mm, to track the insects' movements.

CSIRO lead scientist Dr. Paulo de Souza, says it's painstaking for the researchers, but painless for the bees.

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"So bees are very sensitive to heat so we bring them to the lab, chill them down, then we attach the sensors while they're sleeping," he said.

When the bees reawaken they are released back into the wild.

"So this is just like carrying a little backpack," said de Souza.

The scientists are working in conjunction with the University of Tasmania, local beekeeper and fruit growers. Through the research, they hope to learn more about the bees' travel habits to improve pollination and productivity in fruit orchards, and to understand more about the drivers of bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CDC), a mysterious condition decimating honey bee populations world-wide.

The sensors are tiny radio frequency identification sensors that work by recording a signal when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. The information is then sent remotely to a central location where researchers can use the signals from the 5,000 sensors to build a comprehensive three dimensional model and visualise how these insects move through the landscape.

For fruit growers like Peter Evans, who depend on bees to pollinate their crops, the research project is potentially transformative.

"For the first time we'll actually know where they do go, because in the past we see a white box and we see bees entering and leaving but what they do in the meantime we've no idea."

"At the moment we're going by a guestimation of what we need in number of hives per hectare and where to place them in a crop," agreed Pete Norris of the Southern Tasmanian Beekeepers Association.

But the possibilities for learning about the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are also intriguing to the scientists.

If their research reveals anomalies or self-destructive behaviours, the researchers say the information could be applied to methods of reversing the decline.

CDC is a phenomenon in which worker bees mysteriously disappear from their colonies. It has had a devastating impact on colonies across Europe and North America and has raised fear for the future crops that depend on the bees for pollination.

Dr de Souza says that if the scientists can model the bee's movement they'll "be able to recognise very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause."