Radio-tagged bees take Tasmania by swarm

By Signe Cane 20 January 2014
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Thousands of bees have been fitted with sensors to track their movements.

IN A WORLD FIRST, a swarm of 5000 bees with tiny radio tags attached to them are being released in Tasmania.

For the unusual project, launched last week, CSIRO scientists have teamed up with researchers at the University of Tasmania, as well as beekeepers and farmers.

“Each bee has a different tag, so we are able to track the information about their movements,” says study leader, Dr Paulo de Souza at CSIRO Computational Informatics.

The radio frequency identification sensors (RFID) – which work in a similar way to the e-tags used by drivers on toll roads – will reveal when bees pass checkpoints at feeding sites and hive entrances.

Bees with sensors help build 3D model

CSIRO experts liken the relative weight of the sensor for a bee to the weight a human would experience from carrying a small backpack.

Known as ‘swarm sensing’, the results returned from thousands of bees will allow the scientists to build a detailed 3D model of their movements across the landscape.

“We aim to understand the bee’s relationship with its environment,” says Paulo. The goals are to reveal how these insects forage effectively and to advance knowledge of the risks posed by colony collapse disorder (CCD), an affliction that has been decimating bee populations across the planet.

Honeybees are also under threat from parasites, such as the Varroa mite. Neither CCD nor Varroa are currently a problem in Australia, but experts agree that it is only a matter of time before they arrive here.

“Honeybees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields,” says Paulo. “Around one-third of the food we eat relies on pollination, but honeybee populations around the world are crashing because of the dreaded Varroa mite and CCD.”

Bees provide free pollination service

Professor Boris Baer, from Centre for Integrative Bee Research at University of Western Australia in Perth, says the data gathered will be valuable, revealing details such as how far bees can travel and what is their typical range.

Associate professor Michael Schwarz, at Flinders University in Adelaide says the study is clever in its use of technology. “It should be able to provide the kinds of data that earlier researchers could only dream of.” 

However, “whilst this new study is likely to be important for maximizing our use of [introduced] honeybees, there is also a need to explore how we can use our own native species for effective pollination,” Michael adds. “This would also provide some insurance should the major honeybee diseases eventually arrive in Australia.”