clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Scientists want to put sensors on bees to save them from extinction

New, 21 comments
Honey bee
Honey bee

The global bee population has suffered a lot over the past few years. The USDA reported that 31 percent of the commercial US bee colonies died or disappeared in 2012, and this will have dramatic impacts on our food supply. Now, a group of Australian scientists are trying a new approach to stop them from becoming extinct. Their plan is to strap minuscule sensors to 5,000 honey bees and monitor where they fly.

The plan is the first of its kind to track bees as they move in real time. Worker bees generally follow patterns each day, and a change in those patterns could indicate an environmental disturbance that could threaten the whole colony. The scientists at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization want to put tiny sensors on the insects' backs so they can follow the bees where they fly. The sensors use radio frequency identification chips that work similarly to a vehicle's e-tag, recording when an insect passes a certain point. This information is sent back to the scientists' base where they can use all 5,000 recordings to comprehensively visualize and track how the bees move together through an area. If a change in the bees' flying patterns is detected, scientists can immediately respond and investigate the surrounding environment for pesticides or other threats. It's fairly easy for scientists to put sensors on bees — they first put the bees in the refrigerator for a few hours, which puts them in a coma-like state long enough for scientists to attach the tracking devices to their backs via an adhesive. Once the sensor is attached, the bees will wake up and return to the hive normally.

Tracking bees in real-time could lead scientists to pesticide-infected areas

This is the newest strategy scientists have come up with to battle the growing bee shortage. Recently, a group from Washington State University collected sperm samples from honey bees so they could cryogenically freeze it and eventually create a sort of "super bee" that could withstand the factors thought to be behind colony collapse disorder. CCD is when there are suddenly few, if any, adult bees left in a colony, and it has been called out in many reports as the main reason for the global crisis — but scientists struggle to identify what makes CCD happen in the first place. It could be caused by bee malnutrition or overcrowding, but many reports point to human factors like automotive exhaust or pesticides that make bees more vulnerable to harmful parasites.

The Australian scientists' strategy could be the first to definitively prove, based on real-time data and location information, that pesticides or parasites have caused a shift in bee flying patterns in specific regions. Currently they are working with the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers in Hobart, and fruit growers to test the strategy, and if successful, it could help save more bees than ever before, while getting to the root of the problem and stopping it before it gets out of control.