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Bumblebees Fitted with Backpacks to Track Decline

Mar 25, 2015 05:43 PM EDT
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Gigantic swarm of bees forces people to duck for cover

You've likely heard that bee populations around the world are in dramatic decline due to possible factors like invasive parasites, climate change and harmful pesticides. However, the culprit continues to elude scientists. So to get to the bottom of their dying numbers, researchers are fitting hundreds of UK bumblebees with tiny backpacks to track their movements, giving conservationists hope that we may soon help to end their struggle.

The miniature trackers, developed by Dr. Mark O'Neill from the technology firm Tumbling Dice, are less than 2 inches long and so light that they can actually be superglued to the insects' backs. Scientists working with the technology are currently testing it on bumblebees at The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew in the United Kingdom, and may finally piece together why bee populations have been dwindling.

"These tags are a big step forward in radio technology and no-one has a decent medium to long range tag yet that is suitable for flying on small insects. This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape," Dr. Sarah Barlow, lead scientist on the project, told BBC News. "This piece of the puzzle, of bee behavior, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline."

Europe is home to nearly 2,000 bee species, and yet a stunning 10 percent of them are currently facing the threat of extinction, with another 50-or-so species expected to face the same threat in the near future. In Britain in particular, two of its 26 bumblebee species are rapidly declining. Rural development and the loss of wild meadows over the last century, among other factors, are believed to be the main threats.

This isn't just bad for the bees themselves, but it can hurt humans too. Bumblebees and other flying insects are vital to food production as farmers rely on them to pollinate crops.

However, while it is no secret the threats that bee populations in Britain, and around the world for that matter, are facing, little is actually known about exactly why they are in such dramatic decline. And until now, there has been no accurate way of monitoring bee movements to learn more.

Hopefully that will change thanks to new, tiny 4.8mm x 8mm radio frequency identification tags (RFID), which are fitted with tweezers onto bees' backs like little backpacks. These microchips have a range of up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), allowing bees to be tracked as they move from flowers to trees. Previous tracking technologies have either had too short a detection range, or have been too heavy to attach to the insects.

"The first stage was to make very raw pre-production tags using components I could easily buy. I want to make optimized aerial components which would be a lot smaller. I've made about 50 so far. I've soldered them all on my desk - it feels like surgery," O'Neill said.

But how do you even attach this device to buzzing bees? It's hard to tell a bee that you're trying to help it, so researchers chill the bees for about 10 minutes to stun them (a harmless process) before attaching the tracker, which does not affect their ability to fly.

So far only worker bees - which do not mate - have been fitted with the devices, and it will remain in place for the rest of their expected three-month lifespan.

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time that bees have donned little stylish sensors to better understand their movements. Last January, Nature World News reported of 5,000 honeybees in Australia being fitted with microchip sensors and released back into the wild as part of an extensive environmental monitoring experiment.

By essentially seeing the everyday life of a bumblebee, researchers and conservationists alike hope to gain insight into the conditions that are leading to the deaths of entire bee colonies all over the world.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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