How 5,000 Honey Bees With Tiny 'Backpack' Sensors Will Explain Vanishing Populations

By Ben Wolford on January 18, 2014 12:21 PM EST

Scientists painstakingly stuck these tiny tracking chips on 5,000 honey bees. (Photo: CSIRO)

Wild honey bees, vital for their pollination services, are dying around the world. Though sometimes caused by parasites, another inexplicable cause is what's known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Now for the first time, scientists are undertaking a bold espionage program to find out why. And it involves 5,000 tiny backpacks.

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In Hobart, Tasmania, scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are outfitting thousands of honey bees with sensors smaller than your pinky fingernail. The sensors are like an EZ Pass (or a SunPass for you Floridians); they leave a timestamp every time they pass by a data relay site, several of which have been placed around the Australian city. This better understanding of the bees' movements, the researchers hope, could offer clues to their disappearance.

If, for example, the bees start leaving the hive or returning at odd hours, it could tip off de Souza that something must be investigated. "Honey bees play an extremely important role in our daily lives," says Dr. Paulo de Souza, the lead scientist on the bee-tracking project, on the organization's blog. "Around one third of the food we eat relies on pollination and this is a free service these insects provide. A recent CSIRO study showed that honey bees helped increase fava bean yield by up to 17 percent."

As you can imagine, it's a painstaking process to strap the sensors on. Scientists have to stick the bees in a freezer set to 41 degrees Fahrenheit. It makes them space out long enough to operate on them under a microscope.

So far, Colony Collapse Disorder has not devastated bees in Australia. But its effects have ravaged other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. In the 1940s, there were about five million managed honey bee colonies in the United States, the Department of Agriculture reports. The number has shriveled by half. The die-off began in 2006, but there have been historical reports of other inexplicable losses, including in 1903, when farmers in Utah noted a "disappearing disease."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture denies that a definitive cause has been found for the disorder, but several researchers have concluded agricultural pesticides may be to blame. The European Union subsequently banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, hoping to stem the disorder's spread. Australian farmers and beekeepers, though untouched so far, are nonetheless worried. "Without bees we don't have apples," said John Evans, an apple grower in Tasmania, who spoke with CSIRO.

The CSIRO says bee tagging is only the first part of the project. They have further ambitions to tag other species of insects, including mosquitoes and fruit flies, with even smaller sensors the "size of a grain of sand." Their hope is to log even more data — and not just biological data. "We also want these smaller tags to be able to sense environmental conditions such as temperature and presence of atmospheric gases," de Souza says, "not just track their location."

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