Bees With ‘Backpacks’ Might Help Unlock the Mystery Behind Die Offs

Australian scientists fit bees with radio sensors to monitor behavior

In 1923, Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner prophesized that if commercial farming and beekeeping continued, honeybees would collapse in 80 to 100 years. Steiner’s prediction couldn’t have been more correct. In this age of industrialization, bees are dying at alarming rates. Beekeepers in the United States have lost 40 to 100 percent of their hives over the past year, says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth, and there may be further losses over the winter season. Beekeepers in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries around the world have reported similar losses.

photo of a bee on a flower, a microchip-like backpack attachedCourtesy CSIROWhile bee tagging is not a new research technique, this is the first time such a large number of bees (5,000) will be used in a study.

Many of these massive bee die-offs have been attributed to a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. When the disorder strikes a bee community, apiarists either find empty hives or masses of dead bees. Colony Collapse has been extensively studied, yet no one is entirely sure of its exact cause. The widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides seems to be the prime suspect, with a growing body of evidence showing that this pesticide weakens bees’ immune systems and attacks their nervous systems. Yet other factors such as varroa mites, viruses, monoculture, and even radiation from cell phone towers could also contribute to this disorder. Honeybees pollinate up to two-thirds of our global food crops, and without bees, food security could deteriorate around the world.

A groundbreaking study in Australia, however, could unlock the secrets of this deadly disease, helping farmers and beekeepers stay in business. Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) are fitting 5,000 bees with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sensors, and releasing them in Hobart, Tasmania to monitor their behavior.

The tiny sensors measure at 2.5 millimeters by 2.5 millimeters, and weigh about five milligrams. While bee tagging is not a new research technique, this is the first time such a large number of bees will be used in a study. Also, the capabilities of these sensors could generate some incredible results. “We have put some serious thought and time into improving the quality of the antennas that will read the signals from the sensors,” says Dr. Paulo de Souza, the project’s lead scientist. “The sensors will work just like e-tags in cars.” Every time the bees fly past a checkpoint, information will be sent to a central database that will create a three-dimensional model of bee swarming behavior.

Attaching these sensors to honeybees can be a tricky business. The bees need to be transported into the lab and refrigerated for five minutes at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. “Bees are very sensitive to temperature, and they fall asleep,” De Souza explains. “Then we can glue the sensors to the backs of the bees. After that, they start moving again and wake up, and we take them back to the hive.” However, some bees need to be shaved before the sensors can be attached, especially the younger ones that tend to be hairier. De Souza says that the sensors will not interfere with the bees’ abilities to fly or carry out normal activities, but they may reduce the amount of pollen and nectar the bees can carry by up to 35 percent.

So why is this research being conducted in Australia? This is a compelling question, particularly as Australia is one of the few countries unaffected by Colony Collapse Disorder. De Souza explains that the research capacities of CSIRO have a lot to do with it. “We have 6,500 employees, and if we need someone in a given area, it is very easy to get access to them.” CSIRO is also the organization that developed Wi-Fi, so their research team is highly qualified to work on RFID technology. De Souza also believes that it’s “just a matter of time” before Colony Collapse Disorder hits Australia. Although the parasitic varroa mite has not reached Australia, neonicotinoids are widely used across the country.

The CSIRO research team will monitor bees under ideal conditions, then stress the hives by exposing them to trace amounts of neonicotinoids and other pesticides. “Our research can help identify what factors contribute to bee collapse, and how the bees are being affected,” Dr. de Souza says. “It’s something that I hope can help the United States, Canada, and Europe with this huge problem.”

Even though multiple factors appear to contribute to the bee die offs, environmental organizations in the US like Friends of the Earth have been campaigning for a ban on neonicotinoids – a move that the European Union made last year. The US Environmental Protection Agency has refused to ban neonicotinoids, which it says is just one of many factors contributing to declining bee numbers.

“We know from a growing body of science that these pesticides are weakening bees, making them more susceptible to varroa mites and various diseases,” Lisa Archer says. “If we can deal with this pesticide, then we can start to deal with other problems.”

Ultimately, environmentalists would like to see a shift toward ecological and sustainable farming methods that are less reliant on pesticides. However, without a complete ban on neonicotinoids and other pesticides, it will be difficult to solve the problem of the bee die offs. In the US, organic and biodynamic farms often border farms that use toxic pesticides, and it is nearly impossible to control where honeybees forage. Additionally, the legacy of neonicotinoids will continue to cause issues for years to come. As De Souza explains, these pesticides may not appear to affect a current population of bees, but the toxins will be passed through the generations in stored pollen.

“I’m really glad they’re doing this study,” Archer says. “This is way to see how everything is connected in industrial agriculture, and how we’re going to start solving this problem with the bees.”

The results of this “swarm sensing” study should be available by the second half of 2014. The CSIRO research team is also busy working to improve the sensor technology. They hope to shrink the sensors to one millimeter, and to create self-powering mechanisms that harvest energy from the sun and the insects’ wing vibrations. “We’re going to use the bees as portable weather stations,” De Souza says, “flying around and making measurements of the environment for us.” These smaller, more refined sensors could also be attached to other social insects like fruit flies and mosquitos, which would help scientists understand the interrelations between insects, and the changes they may experience in the our ever-changing world.

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