Thousands of Australian bees are getting tagged for research
By Ben Coxworth
January 15, 2014
Bees are integral to the pollination of major crops around the world, so the more that we understand how they go about their business, the better we can facilitate the process and thereby boost yields. With this in mind, scientists from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are taking the unprecedented step of equipping up to 5,000 honeybees with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags.
The flat, square tags measure 2.5 mm per side, and are being affixed with adhesive to the backs of bees in Hobart, Tasmania. The insects are first placed in a refrigerator to temporarily subdue them, and are then released when they awake after a few minutes. According to the researchers, the tags don't appear to impact the bees' ability to fly or perform other duties.
Once they've rejoined their hives, the bees will recommence joining in the daily swarming flights to nearby crops or other sources of pollen. As they travel, they'll pass by stationary checkpoints, that will detect the signals emitted by the tags. That data will be transmitted back to a central computer, which will assemble it all into a three-dimensional model, showing the scientists where all the bees are at what times.
Along with allowing farmers and other people to better understand bee behavior – and thus make sure that conditions are optimal for pollination – the study is also intended to determine how various factors can negatively affect them. In some cases, for instance, bees feeding on chemically-treated crops will be monitored. If their behavior differs significantly from that of other bees, it should show up in the models.
It is hoped that by learning more about such factors, we may come closer to fully understanding Colony Collapse Disorder – a worldwide phenomenon in which all the worker bees in one colony spontaneously disappear. Australia is currently unaffected by the disorder.
Down the road, the scientists plan on further miniaturizing the RFID tags to one square millimeter in size, so they can be affixed to other pollinating insects such as fruit flies and mosquitoes.