Tiny technology creates a buzz

By Carol Saab

15 January 2014

Bee with sensor

Bee with a backpack… of the sensor variety.

What if I told you that insects in the environment may be able to tell us about the world they live in? Imagine it; they could reveal changes in climate, the presence of dangerous gases or even the arrival of pests. Now you might think this a flight of fancy and tell me to buzz off, but this may not be so far from reality.

Our new research project is using tiny sensors that act like your car’s e-tag and attaching them to the backs of honey bees.

What the?

You heard right –  bees with a chip on their shoulder, or on their back at least.

These tiny 2.5mm x 2.5mm chips relay data to recorders placed around hives and known food sources. We’re not talking about one or two wired up insects here, 5,000 tags are currently being attached to honey bees in Hobart and released into the natural environment.

And why would our researchers do that?

Collecting bee movement information at this scale is a world first and will allow researchers to generate a four dimensional model (three dimensions over time) of bee behaviour and the way these insects move through the landscape. This information is needed on a global scale as wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing all together. In some instances this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s a case of Colony Collapse Disorder, which is believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.

CSIRO’s Dr Paulo de Souza leads the project and talks about why it is so important to protect these often feared insects. He says:

Honey bees play an extremely important role in our daily lives. Around one third of the food we eat relies on pollination and this is a free service these insects provide. A recent CSIRO study showed that honey bees helped increase faba bean yield by up to 17 per cent. Knowing how bees interact with their environment will allow farmers, fruit growers and seed producers to manage their properties using honey bees to increase productivity.

Man holding bee hive

Dr Paulo with his beloved bees.

The research is also looking at the impacts of farm pesticides on honey bees and how much these chemicals contribute to CCD. Healthy bees means healthy landscapes.

Tagging the bees is only the first stage in the project. The next requires us to make the sensors even smaller, down to the size of a grain of sand so they can be used on smaller insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies.

“We also want these smaller tags to be able to sense environmental conditions such as temperature and presence of atmospheric gases; not just track their location.”

“Further to this the sensors will be able to generate energy from the beating wings of the insects, which will give the sensors enough power to transmit information instead of just storing it until they reach a data logger,” says Dr De Souza.

In short, insects will be real-time ‘swarm sensing’ at a scale never before achieved. Insects could become the canaries of the mines or the sniffer dogs of the airports. Bring on the buzz.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdk9Bh8W4js

Media: Emma Pyers, +61 3 5227 5123, emma.pyers (at) csiro.au