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5,000 Bees to be Fitted with Microchip Sensors to Map Movement and Stop Disease

Jan 17, 2014 12:46 PM EST

Thousands of captured honeybees in Australia will be fitted with tiny sensors and released back into the wild as part of an extensive environmental monitoring experiment that researchers hope will help answer questions about colony collapse disorder, which is decimating bee colonies around the world.

The research is being done in Hobart, Tasmania, by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association in concert with local beekeepers and fruit growers.

By monitoring the bees' movements with the microchip sensors, which will relay signals to GPS stations as the bees fly by, the researchers will be able to create a 3D image of mass insect movement.

About 5,000 sensors, weighing about 5 milligrams and measuring 2.5 millimeters (just more than a sixteenth of an inch) will be glued onto the honeybees, which need to be refrigerated into a harmless stupor in order for the sensors to be attached.

The tedious process will be worth it, the researchers say, because the data collected on the bees' movements will be able to assist in combating the conditions that lead to the deaths of entire bee colonies the world over.

"Honeybees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields," said CSIRO scientist Paulo de Souza, leader of the swarm sensing project.

"Around one third of the food we eat relies on pollination, but honey bee populations around the world are crashing because of the dreaded Varroa mite and colony collapse disorder," he said, adding Australia is currently free from both of those threats, which offers a unique position for research.

Varroa mites are external bee parasites whose attack on larvae and adult bees causes developmental abnormalities, reduced lifespan and, ultimately, hive destruction. Colony collapse disorder is marked by the sudden death or disappearance of worker bees. It is dominantly found in colonies of European honeybees.

By tracking the movement of thousands of bees in Tasmania, the researchers will get a picture of how their lives are affected by the environment.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule. Any change in their behavior indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements, we'll be able to recognize very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximize their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks," de Souza said.

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