Tagged bees in crop pollination study

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Photo of bee

Electronically tagged bees may help growers better understand and manage this natural crop pollination service.

PHOTO: CSIRO

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’.

The CSIRO-led research 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 in other countries.

Up to 5000 sensors, measuring 2.5 millimetres by 2.5mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, before their release into the wild.

It is the first time such a large number 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,” says Dr Paulo de Souza, who leads the swarm-sensing project.

A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 per cent.

The research will also look at the impact 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 CCD,” Dr de Souza says.

The sensors are tiny radio frequency identification sensors that work in a similar way to a vehicle’s eTag, recording when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. Researchers can use the signals from the sensors to build a three-dimensional model of how these insects move through the landscape.

Dr de Souza says that understanding bee behaviour may help growers maximise the benefit received from this free pollination service.

More information:

Dr Paulo de Souza,
03 6232 5578,

paulo.desouza@csiro.au

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