The industrious honey bee not only provides us with delicious honey, but also, helps pollinate about a third of the world's fruits and vegetables. It is therefore no wonder that the ongoing deaths of millions of the tiny insects throughout the world, a phenomenon scientists call Colony Collapse Disorder, has researchers extremely worried. What's even worse is that despite extensive investigation, the cause still remains a total mystery.
Now researchers in Australia are turning to technology for help. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) working with scientists from the University of Tasmania as well as local farmers and beekeepers, have recently embarked on the arduous process of fitting 5,000 honey bees with tiny radio frequency sensors, similar to the electronic tags used in cars to pay road tolls. Called 'swarm sensing', the project has been undertaken to monitor or 'spy' upon the insect's every movement.
Every time a tagged bee passes a designated checkpoint, the sensor will remit a message to a central monitoring location. Since bees are creatures of habit and return to the same place at almost the same time each day, the researchers hope to be able to discern and investigate any change in behavior, the minute it happens.
The scientists are hoping that this will allow them to gain some insight on the Colony Collapse Disorder. They also believe that studying things like how feeding on plants with traces of pesticide affects the bees, will enable to them to understand how to maximize the insect's productivity. Additionally, they also hope to give farmers some intelligence about any biosecurity risks faced by the bees that are diligently pollinating the fruits and vegetables on their farms. This means informing them about any pests that may be harming the honey bees.
As for how the researchers plan to stick the sensors onto these buzzing insects? Each bee will be lulled into a nice snooze by placing it in a refrigerator. As they are resting, the scientists will carefully glue the 2.5 millimeter square sensors onto their backs. According to Dr. Paulo de Souza, CSIRO's science leader who is heading the project, the tags which weigh a mere 5 milligrams, do not cause harm or impede the movement of the bees, in any way.
This is not the first time scientists have tagged bees to find out what is ailing them. In 2008, a team led by Professor Juergen Tautz from Germany's University of Wuzburg conducted a similar study by fitting RFID chips on 150,000 honey bees. However, the results of the study were never revealed to the world. Hopefully, the Australian bees will be able to provide more insight.
While bees have been easy tagging targets because of their relatively larger size, researchers are soon hoping to come out with sensors that measure a mere 1 millimeter so that they can start 'spying' on mosquitos and fruit flies too!