Bees with backpacks fly into schools

By Chris Chelvan

27 May 2019

3 minute read

bee getting a tag attached to it's back with tweezers

Bee with a new backpack on and ready to go to school

From apples and almonds, to coffee and cocoa, one third of the food we consume each day relies on bees and their pollination services.

Bees are the world’s most prolific pollinators of food crops, and the estimated value of pollination services from managed honey bees in Australia ranges up to $6 billion a year. These busy bees are an integral part of our economy and agricultural industry.

But global honey bee populations are declining due to a range of factors including agriculture intensification, the Varroa mite, bee pathogens, climate change, pesticides, and the reduction of natural habitats.

Swarm sensing

Our researchers at Data61 have been studying bees and their behaviour for a number of years through our ‘Bees with Backpacks’ project. We’re aiming to better understand the factors causing their decline and to help the beekeeping industry secure the future and health of our ecosystems.

We developed micro-sensing technology that can be placed on bees to track the time they spend from the hive, how far they travel and what they do — all important information in helping to understand risks to bee populations and addressing them.

These high-tech micro-sensors (also known as backpacks) are manually fitted to bees and work in much the same way as a vehicle e-tag system, with strategically placed receivers identifying individual bees and recording their movements.

bee with backpack sensor on a flower

Honeybees pollinate a third of Australia’s food crops. Losing them would cost the economy billions of dollars.

This tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, diet, air pollution, water contamination, and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate.

We provide access to the micro-sensing technology in exchange for global bee data, which is then processed by our scientists to understand the drivers of bee decline. This arrangement is accelerating the pace of scientific discovery through joint analysis and the co-publishing of scientific papers.

Back to school buzz

Now, under a broader partnership between us and the Victorian Government’s Department of Education and Training, we will be taking the ‘Bees with Backpacks’ program to a number of Tech Schools in Victoria – starting with Ballarat Tech School.

Through the program students will learn about the scientific method, analyse Victorian bee datasets to explain local bee behaviour, and contribute their own data to the Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health.

What’s all the buzz about?

Since the ‘Bees with Backpacks’ project began in 2014, an incredible half a million bees have been tagged. This includes honey bees from around the world, as well as native bees in the Amazon and the highlands of Mexico.

The Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health has since taken flight to include mainland Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the U.S, with more countries expected to join.

It’s no exaggeration to say that without bees, our world would not be the same. The hope of these projects is to one day find a way to prevent the extinction of bees and help the beekeeping industry secure the future of our world’s food and the health of our ecosystems.