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Honeybees Are in Trouble—and RFID Can Help

An RFID sensor network can track environmental changes within hives, allowing a beekeeper to infer the insects' health.
By Frank Linton
Nov 22, 2010When people think of RFID temperature sensors and the American food supply, they think of monitoring the cold chain. But before food crops can be shipped to market, they must first be grown. And a critical element of that growth process for fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries is pollination. No pollination, no crop—it's that simple.

The U.S. food supply chain depends on honeybees to perform the pollination. Two and a half million colonies of honeybees pollinate the nation's crops. Each spring, one and a half million of these colonies are trucked from locations across the United States to California's almond groves, in order to provide pollination services. From there, they are moved up and down the West Coast and across the country, pollinating a large percentage of the crops in those areas as well. Without pollination services, our fields and orchards would be barren.

But honeybees are in trouble. Every year, more than one-third of the commercial colonies die—some owing to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and some to other causes. Beekeepers can raise replacement colonies from those that remain, but at a cost: Removing bees from an existing colony weakens it, and new colonies are not as productive as those already established. As a result, some beekeepers have gone out of business over the past few years, and pollination fees have skyrocketed.

So, what is to be done? The answer lies in using RFID sensors to track what we call the hot chain—that is, conditions inside the hive. Here's how it works:

Honeybees have two major tasks. One is gathering food, and incidentally pollinating the blossoms upon which they forage for pollen and nectar. The other is raising more bees. Foraging is a decidedly dangerous task, with foragers living for only a few weeks, thereby necessitating a constant supply of replacements. The new honeybees are raised in the colony's brood nest, the size of which is the best single measure of colony health. Currently, beekeepers must open each hive to inspect the brood nest within—a step that beekeepers often skip, as it not only is time consuming and laborious, but also disturbs the bees.

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