Intel's Edison joins the quest to save the bees

Tiny radio-frequency identification chips attached to bees will be paired with Intel Edison boards to monitor the bees' activities and help the fight against colony collapse disorder.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

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A honey bee wearing a tiny RFID chip, which measures 2.5mm by 2.5mm. CSIRO

Since January 2014, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been using (radio-frequency identification) RFID tags to track bees. These tiny chips monitor the movements of the bees, with a view toward finding out where the insects go, and what role those places may play in colony collapse disorder, the mysterious phenomenon of disappearing bees.

Today, US-based tech company Intel and the CSIRO have announced a partnership, using Intel's Edison postage stamp-sized Breakout Board Kit computer, originally designed with wearable technology in mind, to help monitor the bees.

Researchers have strong suspicions about what causes colony collapse, which is a massive problem in food production, since bees are so integral to plant pollination. Proposed causes include pesticides, fungicides and miticides, as well as diseases and parasites, loss of genetic diversity through breeding or genetically modified crops. But it's difficult to pin down what the exact causes are.

By tracking where the bees go, researchers hope to gain some insight into what environments the bees are exposed to. To date, more than 15,000 bees in Tasmania, Australia, as well as the Brazilian Amazon in partnership with the Vale Institute of Technology, have been tagged with tiny RFID backpacks.

"Bee colonies are collapsing around the world and we don't know why," said Professor Paulo de Souza, Office of the Chief Executive Science Leader, Digital Productivity Flagship, CSIRO. "Due to the urgent and global nature of this issue, we saw the need to develop a methodology that any scientist could easily deploy. This way we can share and compare data from around the world to collaboratively investigate bee health. This united effort is a fantastic example of the Internet of Things."

The Edison Breakout Board Kit used contains Intel's Atom computer system on a chip originally designed for mobile devices. Placed within a beehive, it monitors the bee movement by communicating with the RFID chips, similarly to how an e-tag works in a vehicle to register road tolls.

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The Intel Edison Breakout Board Kit. Intel

This data is then sent to the CSIRO's Data Access Portal, to be analysed by researchers, who use it to construct a 3D model of how bees might be moving through the landscape.

The Breakout Board Kit is also connected to environmental sensors that measure humidity, temperature and solar radiation, with the compatibility in the future to add more sensors as required.

"The Intel Edison Breakout Board kit is the perfect platform for this type of research. It's incredibly reliable, small in size, flexible with programming, and has low power consumption. It's also easily customisable which means that if a scientist has a sensor they would like to add, they can virtually plug in and play," de Souza said.

Intel joins the newly announced, CSIRO-led Global Initiative for Honey bee Health, an alliance of researchers, beekeepers, farmers and other companies from around the globe committed to understanding and striving for a solution to colony collapse disorder. Members of the GIHH will receive the monitoring kits so that they can start collecting their own data to add to the coordinated research effort.