Thousands of Australian honey bees have been fitted with tiny sensors in a study to help understand what is causing the precipitous collapse of colonies around the world.
About 5,000 bees will carry the 2.5mm x 2.5mm sensors, like hi-tech backpacks, for the next two months at the study site in Hobart.
The CSIRO-led research will build data on the movements and habits of several generations of bees to shed light on the causes of colony collapse disorder, which causes the rapid loss of bees and has led to more than 10m beehives being wiped out worldwide in the past six years.
Australia is so far free of this phenomenon, as well as the deadly varroa mite, which has wreaked havoc on bee populations in almost every other country.
Researchers will place bees in a fridge set to 5C, which will send the insects to sleep. The sensors will then be carefully placed, under a microscope, onto the bees’ backs before they are returned to the hive.
CSIRO will study four hives, each with about 50 tagged bees. Two of the hives will be provided a feeder with normal nectar and pollen while the other two will feed on nectar and pollen that contains a small amount of pesticide, which is thought to cause colony collapse.
Scientists will then be able to study the impact of pesticide on the bees’ ability to complete their tasks and honey production. Bees are routine-based insects and any deviation will be observable.
CSIRO said the information would provide farmers and fruit growers with greater knowledge of bees. About a third of the food regularly eaten by humans requires pollination.
The results could also lead to government action on certain types of pesticides. Since 1 December farmers in the European Union have been banned from using three types of pesticide suspected of decimating bee populations.
“The sensors are basically a tag which lets us know how long the bees go for, how many follow them and so on,” Paulo de Souza, lead scientist at CSIRO, told Guardian Australia. “We will monitor the hives for changes, such as whether the bees are slower to come back or go to other hives.
“This will be the largest study ever done of this kind, given that there will be 5,000 sensors. Two months is quite a long time to be studying them, too.”
De Souza said that while Australian bees were in “pretty good shape” and are often exported overseas for pollination purposes, they still face looming threats.
“We don’t know how long they will stay in this condition for – pesticides are one risk as well as monocultures of pollen that bees don’t do well in,” he said. “We are doing some things that might contribute to a future collapse, so it’s important we study this area.”
CSIRO will study other potential causes of colony collapse, such as hive management, after the pesticide research has finished.
It also plans to reduce the size of the sensors to fit onto flies, mosquitos and even smaller winged insects.
“We want to go smaller, maybe to 100 micrometres, although it can be hard to manipulate the sensors at that stage,” de Souza said.
“The bees are amazing – they learn very quickly how to fly with the extra weight. They are very focused on their work. Fruit flies take a little longer.”
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