For the past five months, a group of Australian scientists on the island of Tasmania have been refrigerating hundreds of bees, shaving them, and gluing tiny sensors to their backs. The scientists have already released some into the wild, but aim to engineer a total of 5,000 bees with the chips, each weighing about four thousandths of a paperclip.
It might sound quirky, but the sensors are no frivolous experiment. Building this army of mobile data collectors, scientists say, could save Australia’s fruit farmers.
“The bees are very sensitive to temperature,” explains Dr. Paulo de Souza, lead scientist on the Australian government-funded project. “We take the bees to the lab in a cage, we put them in a fridge with temps around 5 degrees Celsius, and in five minutes, all the bees fall asleep, because their metabolism goes down.”
“We rub a bit of glue on them, and then attach the sensor,” de Souza continued. “We carry them back, and in five minutes the bees wake up again.”
In tracking the bees, the scientists are trying to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hives. No one’s entirely sure what causes CDO, but the scientists plan on finding out before the illness reaches Australian shores.
A number of factors could be contributing to colony collapse, de Souza says. He cites biological diversity, diet, management of the hives, radiation, and pesticide use as possible influences on the bees’ behavior. “But when you put in all these aspects, it’s really difficult to understand what is the contribution of each,” he adds.
Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery that could fell not only bees, but entire industries. If bees don’t pollinate fruit crops well enough, production decreases, and prices rise.
Tasmania, which exports apples to 20 different countries, and accounts for 65% of all Australian exports, could be devastated.
That’s why de Souza and his colleagues will be checking in with the bees by RFID readers installed near hives and feeding stations. The scientists have created an experiment which exposes some bees to environmental contaminants, like pesticides, where other hives remain pesticide-free. By examining the bees’ movements, they’ll be able to determine which factors cause bee disorientation and abnormal behavior.
“It works like a swipe card,” de Souza says. “When you go to your office, you swipe a card to gain access. We assign different numbers to the devices on the bees, so we have 5,000 of these micro-sensors with one specific number. We follow not only the swarm, but each of the individuals to see what they’re doing.”
The scientists will also be able to examine bee data through several generations within the hive. When the contaminated pollen turns to nectar, other bees within the hive feed on it, and pass contamination on to their offspring. To de Souza’s knowledge, this is the first time scientists have attempted to measure hive contamination on this scale.
After this experiment, de Souza and his colleagues plan to add more features to the chips, and possibly implant them in other insects. “As the chips go down in size, we’ll also be able to use this in other insects,” he says. “Fruit flies, for example, are another insect incredibly important for biosecurity in Australia.”