Scientists are putting backpacks on bees - or at least their high-tech equivalent - as part of a new global effort to reverse the decline of our hard-working pollinators.
Around the world and here in New Zealand, researchers have been trying to pin down what has been driving unexplained colony losses, something only anecdotal evidence has blamed on diseases, pests, pesticides and starvation.
Now, Kiwi scientists are getting involved with a groundbreaking new partnership between Australia's national science agency CSIRO and tech giant Intel, which will fit tens of thousands of bees across the globe with tiny electronic tags.
About 15,000 bees in Australia and Brazil have already trialled the state-of-the-art technology, which includes a 4.5 microgram, 2.5mm long radio frequency identification (RFID) tag attached to the insect's back. It weighs about a third of its usual carry load.
These tags are picked up by Intel Edison boards, which are placed inside beehives and pick up readings from the tags when their winged wearers come within range.
Environmental sensors attached to the boards capture a range of data that helps researchers, beekeepers and other groups pick apart detailed information about the health and behaviour of honey bee populations, which we rely on to pollinate one third of the food we consume.
Ultimately, the mass of data collected will allow scientists to build a comprehensive 3D model visualising how bees may be moving through the landscape, answering vital questions about their responses to pressures on their colonies. CSIRO scientist Professor Paulo de Souza told the Herald Kiwi researchers from Plant and Food Research, along with players in the manuka honey industry, had shown an interest in the programme, which he expected would be rolled out to many more countries after its launch today.
Plant and Food Research pollination scientist Dr David Pattemore said miniature RFID tags had already been used to study insect behaviour, including bees, for well over a decade - but adding it to a range of new sensors would produce large and valuable new datasets.
"The real innovation here is the partnership with Intel that allows for collection of data from a number of sensors and RFID tags simultaneously through Intel's breakout board kit," Dr Pattemore said.
"The impact of this technology will depend on the set-up costs of the system, which will determine how many researchers around the world can utilise it.
"Like any technology used in research, the key is to clearly identify research questions first, then pick the best technology to answer it."
The new programme comes as Kiwi beekeepers are being surveyed to explore the potential causes behind colony losses in New Zealand.
Despite big rises in hive numbers, colony losses have continued, and industry groups and researchers are turning to beekeepers for their help to protect our $5.1 billion industry.
A just-begun online survey, conducted by Landcare Research, will gather baseline information from beekeepers about colony loss and survival to track future changes.
National Beekeepers' Association (NBA) chief executive Daniel Paul said the survey was a "starting point" to protect bees.
"The survey will provide a wealth of benchmark data that will facilitate apiary management," he said.
To help raise awareness about the importance of bees, the NBA has declared next month Bee Aware month.
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