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Bees with Backpacks: Keeping the Hive Alive

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

By attaching tiny tracking devices to the backs of honey bees, one Australian scientist hopes the insects will reveal why the global bee population is in serious decline.

Nearly ten thousand bees on the remote Australian island of Tasmania are buzzing around wearing little sensor “backpacks” about the size of a grain of rice. These tiny technology trackers offer clues to a mysterious environmental tragedy that threatens the world’s food supply.

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About three-quarters of the world’s food crops — including fruits, vegetables and coffee — depend on pollination by bees, butterflies, beetles and other species of pollinators, according to a breakthrough United Nations report released earlier this year.

The report said that between US$235 billion and US$577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators, including 20,000 species of bees.

 

“In the U.S. alone, honey bee hives are now declining by about 25 percent a year,” said Professor Paulo de Souza, science leader at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

“There’s been a steady decline in hives since the 1940s, but it’s getting worse.”

The whole ecosystem is linked, he said.

“If we don’t have bees, we won’t have food for our kids. We won’t have enough to feed our population,” de Souza said. “The biggest question is: Why is this happening?”

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Scientists know bee decline is due to a cocktail of environmental stressors such as climate change, widespread use of pesticides, disease and habitat loss. Still, the specific causes to such massive decline remain a mystery, one that de Souza and his team are eager to solve.

The Technology

Researchers know honey bees are afflicted by what’s known as colony collapse disorder.

“We’re not exactly sure which key factors, or what combination of factors, cause colony collapse disorder,” de Souza said. “But what we do know is that from one day to the next, a viable working hive could all of a sudden have no bees left in it, or they could all be found dead.”

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To study specific bees and hives, de Souza turned to technology.

De Souza’s team attached radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to the bees to measure how and when bees deviate from their intensely predictable behavior. He compared the sensors to an airplane’s flight recorder or black box. “They provide us with vital information about what happened to the bees before the hive collapsed.”

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The data is communicated to an Intel Edison compute module that is installed in each hive. Edison is a small high-performance development board that can collect massive amounts of data using little power consumption.

“Data captured by the Edison and RFID tags help us better understand why honey bees are on the decline and provide valuable information to beekeepers, primary producers, industry groups and governments on how best to protect the honey bee population,” de Souza said.

Bees with Backpacks

The Edison boards are customizable, so scientists in different parts of the world can measure things specific to the region — temperature and humidity, water pollution, wind velocity, for example — or the rate and volume of honey production. Researchers around the world can use the same technologies and data collection to help solve what de Souza said is one of the biggest threats to global food security.

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“What scares me is to not have the opportunity to offer my kids the world that I have,” said de Souza. “This is not about bees and microchips of technology. This is about the future of our planet. Without bees, life as we know it will simply not be the same.”

 

Additional reporting by Nick Jacobs and Stephanie Ryan.

Editor’s Note: In this Experience Amazing series, iQ explores how computer technology inside is enabling incredible experiences outside. We look at how computer technology powers new experiences and discoveries in science, the maker movement, fashion, sports and entertainment. To learn more about the tech behind these stories, visit Experience Amazing.

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