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RFID Detects Workloads of Bumblebee Foragers
The HF RFID technology—consisting of a tag on each bee's back and a reader at a foraging chamber's entrance—helped University of Arizona researchers learn how labor is divided among foragers within a hive.
Two Microsensys MAJA readers were installed at each of the 1.5-inch-diameter tubes that allowed bumblebees to enter and leave the two chambers. At the point at which the readers were attached, the tube narrowed to approximately 2 centimeters (0.8 inch) in width, thereby ensuring a close enough proximity to the tag to capture the bee tag's ID. Because the bee passed two readers in each tube, the system could identify the direction in which the bee was moving—in or out of the chamber, based on which reader captured the tag ID first.
The university researchers developed their own software to capture and interpret the read data, comprising a total of 82,609 read events. Once the information was collected, the researchers conducted a series of measurements of each bee's size, wing span and antenna length, as well as other details, and that data was stored along with the tag's unique ID number, thereby connecting it to the bee's activity records.
The results yielded several surprises, Russell reports. "The specialization and switching of specializations were surprising," he says, adding, "We didn't expect such an extreme variation in foraging efforts."
There were a few challenges with the RFID technology use as well, Russell says. The primary challenge involved the application of tags to the bees, followed by ensuring that the reader captured each passing tag's ID. The read range was several millimeters, he adds, noting that a longer-range RFID system with more readers might be easier to work with for other projects.
Russell is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburg, but says he hopes, at some point, to launch another bumblebee behavior study using RFID technology. He is specifically interested in navigation patterns among other area of insect behavior.
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