15 January 2014

Bee sensors take flight to help farmers

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'.

Tiny sensors monitor honey bee behaviour

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Tiny technology creates a buzz]

[Image changes to show a swarm of bees on a hive]

Narrator: Honey bees are the great unsung hero of the Australian landscape. While they busily go about their business of foraging, collecting pollen and producing honey, they're also helping to produce the foods we eat every day. In fact one third of what goes into our mouths relies on pollination, service these winged insects provide for free.

[Image changes to Peter Norris, Beekeeper, standing by a hive]

Peter Norris: Bees are just so important to our wellbeing. Things that are immediately obvious are pome fruits, and stone fruits, and berries, and things like that. [Camera pans over a farm showing animals and fields]

But things that aren't so immediately obvious are beef because they need Lucerne and clover, and all those crops need pollinating with bees as well.

Narrator: Sadly, honey bee populations around the world have crashed.

[Image has changed to Dr Geoff Allen, University of Tasmania]

Dr. Geoff Allen: In the case of bees there's a number of different issues going on around the world. A particular one is around Colony Collapse Disorder and the issues around also biosecurity, and pathogens, and varroa mite in bees. [Image changes to show three beekeepers working in hives]

Narrator: Currently Australia is free from Colony Collapse Disorder and varroa mite, but the risk of them arriving is very real.

[Image has changed back to Peter Norris]

Peter Norris: Oh, catastrophic – absolutely catastrophic. I was in the U.K. when varroa arrived there, and I had 150 hives as a hobby, and I went down to 25 hives in the first year. We lost 80% of the bees in the U.K. in the first year it was discovered.

[Image has changed to a scientist working in a laboratory with bees] Narrator: A new CSIRO led research program is looking into how to maintain honey bee productivity on farms in the event of a bee population crash, as well as learn about what is driving the global collapse in wild populations. And to do that requires technology on a miniature scale.

[Image changes to show the scientific tag and a five cent piece side by side] These tags measure just a quarter of a centimetre in length and are being fitted to the backs of wild bees to monitor their movement in the landscape.

[Image changes to show Paulo de Souza, CSIRO]

Dr. Paulo de Souza: We can have sensors in thousands of bees at the same time, and we will be able to monitor what each bee is doing in the environment. And this absolutely new, we can really review a completely new world about the bees, and how they behave, and what they can do.

[Image changes to show a tag being placed onto a bee and then to a scientist reviewing data on a computer screen]

Narrator: The sensors act like an e-tag on your car and record when the insect passes a data logger. That information is sent remotely to a central location where researchers can then model the insect's behaviour and how it interacts with its environment. Five thousand of the sensors are being fitted to Tasmanian bees as part of the research program, which includes the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, and fruit growers, like John Evans.

[Image changes to show John Evans, apple grower]

John Evans: Well without bees we don't have apples, and we've seen in the footage before where the bees are not being active because of bad weather and there's no apples there. So the bee is very important. [Image has changed back to Dr. Paulo de Souza]

Dr. Paulo de Souza: So we work with the industry to bring the impact and to solve the problems they have. We're not building sensors; we're building the future of Australia.

Narrator: Honey bees are just the starting point for this technology.

[Image has changed to show Dr Stephen Quarell, University of Tasmania]

Dr Stephen Quarell: And we could use it to observe say pest movement, so fruit flies, moths, like coddling moth in orchards, but also disease vectors like malaria carrying mosquitoes, or the sky is the limit really. Anything that moves we can tag it.

[Image has changed to Dr Paul De Barro, CSIRO]

Dr. Paul De Barro: Oh, these are game changers. Being able to gather real time information about where insects are and how they're reacting or interacting with their environment will just change the way that we understand insects' behaviour and ecology.

[Image has changed to show the beekeepers working on the hives]

It'd be hard pressed to think of any area of biology and ecology that won't benefit from this sort of technology.

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here www.csiro.au ]

Hide transcript

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 2.5mm x 2.5 mm are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, before being 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. A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 per cent," CSIRO science leader Dr Paulo de Souza, who leads the swarm sensing project, said.

"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.

"Using this technology, 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 then 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.

"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 help us understand how to maximise their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks," Dr de Souza said.

Understanding bee behaviour will give farmers and fruit growers improved management knowledge enabling them to increase the benefit received from this free pollination service. It will also help them to gain and maintain access to markets through improving the way we monitor for pests.

"We're working with the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers in Hobart and fruit growers around the state to trial the technology. Many growers rely on wild bees or the beekeepers to provide them with pollinators so they can improve their crops each year. Understanding optimal conditions for these insects will improve this process," Dr de Souza said.

To attach the sensors, the bees are refrigerated for a short period, which puts them into a rest state long enough for the tiny sensors to be secured to their backs with an adhesive. After a few minutes, the bees awaken and are ready to return to their hive and start gathering valuable information.

"This is a non-destructive process and the sensors appear to have no impact on the bee's ability to fly and carry out its normal duties," Dr de Souza said.

The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to only 1mm so they can be attached to smaller insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies.

Additional resources

Images

  • A honey bee with a sensor on its back. Download image

    Honey bees are a major pollinator of flowers and crops, up to one third of the food we eat relies on pollination.

  • A honey bee with a sensor on its back. Download image

    Thousands of honey bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors as part of ‘swarm sensing’ program.

Audio

Background information

Varroa Mite

Varroa mites are external parasites of bees. The mites, which are about the size of a pinhead, use specialised mouthparts to attack developing bee larvae or adult bees, resulting in deformed bees, reduced lifespan and ultimately the destruction of the colony or hive. These mites are the most important pest of honeybees around the world.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear.  Colony collapse is significant economically because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by European honey bees.

Expand background information

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