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Scientists put backpacks on bees to study colony collapse

Australian scientists are fitting bees with tiny sensors so they can monitor and study the insects' drastically diminishing populations.

Bee wearing a sensor.

The global bee population has been in serious decline for some years, and scientists are devoting serious effort to trying to figure out why. There are a number of proposed causes for Colony Collapse Disorder, whereby worker bees suddenly vanish from a colony -- chiefly pesticide use, parasites, malnutrition, and disease -- and although it's strongly theorized that a combination of these factors is at play, no one really knows for sure.

Scientists at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) are trying a novel approach to understanding the phenomenon. Just like geolocation tags can now be worn by pets, CSIRO's team, led by Paulo de Souza, is attaching tiny sensors to the backs of bees to monitor where they go.

"Honey bees play an extremely important role in our daily lives," de Souza said. "Around one-third of the food we eat relies on pollination, and this is a free service these insects provide. A recent CSIRO study showed that honey bees helped increase fava bean yield by up to 17 percent. Knowing how bees interact with their environment will allow farmers, fruit growers and seed producers to manage their properties using honey bees to increase productivity."

Bee wearing a sensor.

More than 5,000 bees in Hobart, Australia, have been fitted with the RFID sensors, which measure a tenth of an inch all around. They will relay data to recorders placed around hives and known food sources and will in turn send the information to a central location. This will allow researchers to build a four-dimensional model of bee behavior and movements, which will help them understand what the bees come into contact with -- such as farm pesticides -- and how it may play a part in their decline.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule," de Souza explained. "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."

The next step in the process will be to refine the sensors, adding further functions and reducing them in size so they can be attached to smaller insects such as fruit flies and mosquitoes for a more holistic study of insect behavior.

"We also want these smaller tags to be able to sense environmental conditions such as temperature and presence of atmospheric gases; not just track their location," de Souza said. "Further to this the sensors will be able to generate energy from the beating wings of the insects, which will give the sensors enough power to transmit information instead of just storing it until they reach a data logger."

CSIRO, you may recall, recently made headlines when scientists there made an adorable 3D-printed winged beast for a girl who wanted her own dragon.

(Source: Crave Australia)