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Tiny technology to save our great pollinators: bees

MONITORS: Tiny sensors will be fitted to the backs of the bees.
MONITORS: Tiny sensors will be fitted to the backs of the bees. Andrey Kuzmin

THOUSANDS of honey bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors, as part of a world-first research program to monitor them and their environment, using a technique known as swarm sensing.

The research is being led by CSIRO and aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms, as well as help understand the drivers of bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a condition decimating honey bee populations worldwide.

Up to 5000 sensors, measuring 2.5mmx2.5mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, before they are released into the wild. It's the first time such large numbers of insects have been used for environmental monitoring.

"Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape, through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields," said Dr Paulo de Souza, who leads the swarm sensing project.

"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."

The research will 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.

"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.

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 sent remotely to a central location, where researchers can use the signals from the 5000 sensors to build a comprehensive three dimensional model and visualise how these insects move through the landscape.

Topics:  animal health bees environment