Tiny Backpacks Could Solve Mystery of Massive Bee Deaths

December 9, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Closeup of a tiny microchip attached to the back of a honey bee,
Photo credit: Screen capture of video from CSIRO

More than just a fashion statement.

It is not easy being a bee these days — an alarming number of bees around of the world are experiencing colony collapse disorder (CCD) associated with a combination of environmental stresses such as invasive species, parasites, specifically the Varroa mite, disease, habitat loss and neonic pesticide use.

Bees are pivotal in global food production.  Bumble and honey bees, along with butterflies, moths, and flies, are responsible for most pollination — the activity of transferring pollen from the male anther to the female stigma within a flower — an essential process for angiosperms or flowering plants.

Australia is lucky enough to be the only country in the world without the Varroa mite (so far), and in an effort to understand the day-to-day struggles of bees, an international research team, leading the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health, are fitting bees with tiny high-tech backpacks.

SEE ALSO: What Would Happen If All Earth’s Insects Vanished?

“This puts Australia in a good position to act as a control group for research on this major issue that could one day become our problem too,” said Dr. Saul Cunningham, CSIRO Pollination Researcher.

A video posted by CSIRO on YouTube shows the backpacks, which are micro-sensors that use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.  Electronic readers are attached to hives to record each time a bee passes by a data logger.  This information is then sent to a computer for researchers to analyze the behavior of individual bees, including the duration of bee expeditions, how they interact with their environment, the effect of the weather, and how long bees rest in between foraging.



The RFID tags do not interfere with the bees movement or flight — each tag measures a quarter of a centimeter in length, and weighs 5.4 milligrams — which accounts for just 20 percent of what bees can carry.  So far, 15,000 bees in Australia and Brazil have been fitted with the backpacks.

“The tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate,” said Professor Paulo de Souza, CSIRO Science Leader.

There is worldwide concern over CCD, and nowhere is the situation worse than in the United States.  According to the Bee Informed Partnership, a coalition of universities and research labs involved in honeybee research, U.S. beekeepers have lost 42.1 percent of their colonies between April 2014 and April 2015.  Commercially managed colonies in the United States have also decreased from 6 million in 1947 to 2.6 million in 2013.

Europe has also seen a decline of nearly 35 percent from 2012 to 2013, however the trend has slowed.  The European Commission not only put a temporary ban on neonic pesticides in 2013 (the ban was lifted earlier this year), but they have also taken steps to protect bees.

Hopefully these adorable backpack-carrying honeybees will help researchers determine what is causing CCD.  "The time is now for a tightly-focused, well-coordinated national and international effort, using the same shared technology and research protocols, to help solve the problems facing honey bees worldwide before it is too late," de Souza said.

This technology is not only applicable to bees, it can be used to observe pests, and even malaria carrying mosquitoes — the sky’s the limit.

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