Bees with backpacks: micro-sensors help solve global honey bee decline

28 Jun 2016

Author: Myles Gough

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Discover how Australian scientists are using pioneering tracking technology to save the world’s honey bees and protect global food security.
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Honey bees are vital to the environment, agriculture and food production. They help pollinate close to 75 per cent of plants and one-third of the food we consume, including many of our most nutritious fruits and vegetables. 

These pollinating services are estimated to be worth more than A$200 billion annually to the global economy.1 

In the last 50 years there has been a steady and unprecedented decline in honey bee populations around the world, says Paulo de Souza, an expert in micro-sensors at CSIRO, Australia’s national science organisation. 


Between 1947 and 2008, the United States went from having 5.9 million honey bee colonies to fewer than 2.5 million – a decrease of roughly 60 per cent. Elsewhere, it’s estimated that bee losses could be as high as 90 per cent.2. 

With the global human population projected to exceed 9.5 billion by 2050, up from 7.4 billion today, the current rate of bee decline is unsustainable, says de Souza. “It will be impossible to produce as much food as we need in three decades, or earlier, if we continue losing bees at the current rate.” 

De Souza is the leader of the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health (GIHH) – an Australian-led collaboration between the CSIRO, hundreds of international researchers, farmers and beekeepers, and industry partners including Intel, Japan’s Hitachi Chemicals, and Brazilian mining company, Vale. 

The objective is to improve honey bee health and keep them pollinating food crops into the future. But first, researchers need to better understand the myriad factors causing their decline.

Key suspects include pesticides, water and air pollution, hive mismanagement, quality of diet, habitat loss, diseases – which may be behind the mysterious colony collapse disorder and parasites – like the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a tiny bloodsucker that exclusively kills honey bees. Extreme weather events linked to climate change, such as floods and heat waves, are also wreaking havoc.

Bees with backpacks 

The catalyst for the GIHH is a power-efficient micro-sensor platform, developed by de Souza and his team from CSIRO’s Data61 business unit. 

A 2.5 millimetre-wide sensor, about the size of a match head, is being manually attached to individual bees using super glue. 

“We call them bees with backpacks,” de Souza says. 

For the first time, researchers can track individual bees in unprecedented detail: the duration of foraging missions, the rest periods between flights, and movement between hives. They even know the precise time of death, as the sensors last the duration of the bee’s life – between two and four months. 

Using the data collected from these micro-sensors, teams can more effectively assess the impact of different stress factors. 

The micro-sensors work like an access card for a building. An antenna near the hive entry reads a unique number, transmitted by the micro-sensor, as bees come and go. The digits correspond to factors such as geography, species-type, the sex and status of the bee, the time of year, the weather conditions, and so on. 

The data is sent to a small computer, attached to the hive, and is uploaded to the cloud. Using innovative data collection infrastructure, developed by de Souza and his team at CSIRO, the data can be analysed by scientists around the world.

Innovative batteries

To power the micro-sensors, de Souza and his team built an innovative energy harvesting device, which measures 100-micrometres wide – about the diameter of a human hair. It uses tiny springs to generate energy from the vibration of the bee in flight.  

Next, the team built a specialised battery. Unlike thin-film batteries, which consist of layers of flat sheets, they created a battery with a unique microstructure resembling the inside of a cave, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. 

This additional surface area means a battery of equal volume can store up to 10 times more energy, says de Souza. 

These components allow the microsensors to be deployed in remote and globally important ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest in South America, where researchers are tracking the migration of Africanised killer bees, and investigating the impact of climate change and deforestation on native bees. 

To date, more than 100,000 bees have been tagged, and in another 12 months, de Souza expects that number to exceed 1 million. 

“The more experiments, the more data we collect. And the more data we collect, the more knowledge we can generate to learn about the problem.” 

Micro-sensors and Mars rovers

A native of Brazil, De Souza moved to Tasmania with his wife and two daughters in 2008. Five years later, he scored a sizeable grant from the CSIRO to begin developing micro-sensors about “the size of a grain of sand”. 

In addition to the honey bee project, these tiny sensors will have applications in medicine and biosecurity, infrastructure and environmental monitoring, and the Internet of Things – which will see everyday objects in our homes and built environment wirelessly connected. 

“You could have wearables with sensors embedded in them,” says de Souza. “Sunglasses, for example, could have sensors that tell you whether there are dangerous levels of UV light while you’re at the beach.” 

Or you could have sensors in the bloodstream that measure and provide data about your body functions in real-time, or feedback about the efficacy of a specific drug, he says. 

A physicist and materials scientist by training, de Souza’s expertise in hardware miniaturisation began during his PhD work in Germany, at Johannes Gutenberg University. 

The goal of the lab was to shrink an instrument called a nuclear resonator, or Mössbauer Spectrometer, which is used to characterise minerals containing iron. “That instrument was the size of an industrial printer, and we miniaturised it to the size of a computer mouse,” he recalls.  

The miniaturised instrument was selected by NASA for its Mars Exploration Rover and helped uncover important clues about past water activity on Mars, transforming what we know about the planet’s geological history. 

De Souza, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the early days of the mission, says the experience had a profound impact on his research career. 

A world without bees 

De Souza’s research is now focused closer to home. The prospect of a world without bees is one he doesn’t like to contemplate. 

Crops would fail and whole ecosystems would become imbalanced. In Australia, the cost of food production would soar, farmers might quit growing crops or raising livestock altogether, and supermarkets would look radically different: “You wouldn’t see oranges, limes, lemons, plums, apples, pears, berries, and so on,” he says. 

The nutritional content of our diet would suffer, resulting in health problems. In the developing world, food shortages would become even more acute. 

“What scares me is to not have the opportunity to offer my kids the world that I have. This is not about bees or microchips or technology. This is about the future of our planet,” he says. 

“I can see how serious this problem is, and I am in a position to help make a difference.”

-END- 

1. Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline,accessed 28 June 2016.

2. National Agricultural Statistics Service (2008) Honey, accessed 28 June 2016

VIDEO: Bees with Backpacks | Experience Amazing | Intel

   

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