One of the greatest threats to our planetary ecosystem is the threat of bees going extinct, a phenomenon that is often filed under the heading of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Because of their role in pollination, bees are an integral part of the environment, and their disappearance would mean the sudden collapse of all life on the planet in just a few years time.
Because of this, environmentalists and entomologists are looking for ways to address the disappearance of bees. One solution, as put forward by a team of Australian scientists working in Tasmania, is to outfit bees with tiny microchip trackers to monitor their movements. By turning them into an army of mobile data-collectors, the team hopes to determine why the local bees are abandoning their hives.
For the past five months, this team has been capturing hundreds of bees, refrigerating them, shaving them, and gluing tiny sensors – which weigh about 1/4000th of a paperclip – to their backs. So far, the team has captured, tagged and released hundred bees, but the team plans to engineer a total of 5000 with these chips for the sake of their research.
Dr. Paulo de Souza, the lead scientist on the project, explained the capture and tagging process as follows:
The bees are very sensitive to temperature. 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. We carry them back, and in five minutes the bees wake up again.
By monitoring their behavior, the scientists are trying to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hives. As it stands, no one is entirely sure what causes CCD, but biological diversity, diet, management of the hives, radiation, and pesticide use are all possible influences on the bees’ behavior.
Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery that not only effects bees, but entire industries. If bees don’t pollinate fruit crops well enough, production decreases, prices rise, and local ecosystems can collapse. Tasmania, who’s huge agricultural tracts accounts for 65% of all Australian crop exports, could be devastated. Hence why de Souza and his colleagues are using it as a testing ground for their research.
In addition to monitoring the bees movements and checking in with them via RFID readers installed near hives and feeding stations, they’ve also created an experiment which exposes some bees to environmental contaminants (like pesticides) where other hives remain pesticide-free. By examining the effect on bees’ movements, they’ll be able to determine which factors cause bee disorientation and abnormal behavior.
As DeSouza explains it, the tagging and tracking process works a lot like a swipe card:
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.
Right now, their main goal is to understand CCD before it reaches Australia’s shores and effects its agricultural operations. But the research is expected to have far-reaching implications, helping to address a major ecological concern that effects the entire world. And in the long run, de Souza and his team are looking to refine the process and take it even further.
As the chips go down in size, we’ll also be able to use this in other insects. Fruit flies, for example, are another insect incredibly important for biosecurity in Australia.
An interesting concept, isn’t it? Big data meets entomology meets ecology, and all for the sake of preserving a crucial part of the food industry and an integral part of our environment. Because ultimately, its not just about preventing colonies from collapsing, but the Earth’s ecosystems as well.