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 using a technique known as 'swarm sensing'.
Honey bee populations at risk
Bees are the world's most prolific pollinators of food crops - with one third of the food that we consume each day relying on pollination, these little creatures contribute billions every year to the global economy. Healthy bees are a sign of a healthy agricultural industry.
Unfortunately honey bee populations in some parts of the world are at risk from a number of interacting factors such as agriculture intensification, Varroa mite, bee pathogens, changes in bee food supplements and pesticides. Of key biosecurity importance is the dreaded Varroa mite a parasite that feeds on the blood of bees and transmits pathogens that kill off bee populations.
While Varroa has not appeared in Australia, there is a very real risk, with Varroa having now spread to neighbours in New Zealand and Indonesia.
Bee sensors take flight to help farmers
Figuring out where insects spend their time, how far they travel and what they are doing has traditionally been very difficult.
But the micro-tracking technique, known as swarm sensing, can reveal this information in unprecedented detail. As part of aworld first swarm sensing research program, CSIRO have fitted tiny micro-sensors to thousands of bees in Tasmania, in order to monitor their movements and their environment.
The sensors are tiny radio frequency identification sensors that 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 to build a comprehensive three-dimensional model and visualise how the insects move through their landscape.
The sensors are 2.5mm x 2.5mm in size and weigh about 5 milligrams each. A new generation as small as 1.5mm x 1.5mm is being designed; less is more, as smaller sensors will interfere less with the insect's behaviour.
Capturing swarm sensing data from Australia and Brazil
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. 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 allow farmers and fruit growers to increase the benefit received from this free pollination service, and will also allow monitoring for any biosecurity risks such as Varroa mite.
With thousands of bees in Tasmania already tagged with sensors, and working with partners Vale Institute of Technology in Brazil CSIRO have also taken the technology to the Amazon, to track and compare behaviour between bee colonies in the two regions.
The sensors, which one day may be used on fruit flies and mosquitoes also, will be able to capture information about our world with unprecedented density and in locations not previously accessible.
The next generation of sensors will be even more advanced - generating power from insect movement and storing the energy in batteries, as well as tracking capability that will follow an insect's movement in real-time.
Source and top image: CSIRO
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