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The Birds and the Bees—And RFID

A simple tagging procedure could help solve a global problem.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 19, 2014

Honeybees play a critical role in the global food supply chain. They pollinate plants on farms worldwide, enabling crop production. But bee populations have been declining in North America, Europe and many other regions, due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), an unexplained disappearance of worker bees.

While CCD is not a threat in Australia, researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the county's national science agency, are RFID-tagging 5,000 honeybees in Tasmania to learn what environmental conditions are affecting bee behavior. Bees have been RFID-tagged before to try to identify the factors contributing to CCD and declining pollination rates, but this is the largest study to date.

The bees manage to fly normally with the chip positioned close to their center of mass.
"Honeybees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields," says Paulo de Souza, head of the research team. "A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans could lead to a productivity increase of 17 percent. Better understanding of bee behavior could help us improve pollination rates."

The project began in September 2013, when the researchers experimented with different glues and chip positions on the bees; the bees manage to fly normally with the chip close to their center of mass. The researchers chill each bee in a refrigerator for roughly 10 minutes, so the insect's metabolism slows down and they can glue a 2.5 mm by 2.5 mm RFID transponder from Hitachi Chemicals on its back. The transponders operate at 860 MHz to 960 MHz, and have an antenna etched into the chip itself.

The bees are released into the wild and then tracked using RFID readers from a variety of solution providers, which are placed around hives and feeders with pollen and nectar. "We managed to get readings from more than 10 RFID tags simultaneously at distances up to about 30 cm [almost 12 inches]," de Souza says.

The data collected enables the researchers to study when the bees leave the hive and when they visit the feeders. They hope to learn what environmental parameters influence bee behavior, and how pesticides added to pollen and nectar are likely to influence the bees' behavior or affect their health.

Data collection is scheduled to end in May, at which time it will be analyzed, and then the results will be published in a peer-review journal. De Souza and his team plan to deploy a new series of experiments in collaboration with the Vale Institute of Technology, in Brazil, to investigate the behavior of bees and other insects in the Amazon region.

De Souza and the team hope their data will provide information the agriculture industry, government agencies and other organizations could use to better manage our environment and food production.

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