01/28/2014 04:51 pm ET

Scientists Strap Tiny 'Backpacks' To 5,000 Bees To Learn More About Colony Collapse Disorder

From Mother Nature Network's Laura Moss:

There's been a lot of buzz about colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon causing bees to die off around the world, and Australian scientists are trying a new approach to studying the phenomenon: They're attaching tiny sensors to bees.

More than 5,000 honeybees are being equipped with 2.5mm x 2.5mm sensors that relay data to recorders placed around hives and known food sources.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule," project leader Dr. Paulo de Souza, a scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said in a statement.

"Any change in their behavior indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements, we'll be able to recognize very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximize their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks."

But how do you attach a sensor to a tiny honeybee?
Good question. It turns out that it's not that complicated.

1. Refrigerate the bee.
"We take the bee into a cold place, usually to a fridge about 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees F), for five minutes and that is enough to have the bees sleeping," de Souza told the Australian Broadcasting Company.

2. Shave the bee. (Yes, really.)
"Very young bees, they're very hairy. At times we need to do something to help us," he said.

3. Use tweezers to glue the sensor to the bee's back.
"It doesn't disturb the way the bee will see or the way the bee will fly, they just work normally," he said.

"Each sensor weight is about 5 milligrams. This is about 20 percent of what the bee can carry. So the bee can carry a lot of weight in pollen, in nectar, so this is like someone carrying a small backpack."

Buzz off
Once their sensors are in place, the honeybees are released in Tasmania, an island state located off Australia's coast.

The radio frequency identification sensors will allow scientists to build a 3-D image of the bees' movements and provide them with information on how pesticides contribute to colony collapse disorder.

But tagging the bees is only the first stage of the project.

De Souza said researchers are working to make the sensors even smaller so they can be attached to insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies.

"We want these smaller tags to be able to sense environmental conditions such as temperature and presence of atmospheric gases; not just track their location. Further to this, the sensors will be able to generate energy from the beating wings of the insects, which will give the sensors enough power to transmit information instead of just storing it until they reach a data logger," he said.



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