Tasmania, respected as the last strong-hold for the Devil and as Australia’s main apple-picking state, has something new to boast about. Scientists are outfitting 5,000 bees with electronic tracking devices. The glued-on sensors are RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification Devices) which activate monitor stations whenever the bees buzz by. This makes them similar to the vehicle passes you may have hung on your car’s mirror for tollway access, especially in Europe. (I’m not sure if the technology has arrived in North America yet.) But it is nothing like the GPS tracker inside Fido’s collar or my slippers. Those actively broadcast location information. That level of technology is still a bit too cumbersome and too expensive to burden either a bee or a beekeeper’s budget. So instead, this is a simpler passive program.
The system is a swarm-sensor array, although this doesn’t mean the researchers are expecting to track swarms. Rather, it means vast amounts (swarms) of data are amassed at a large number of points the bees might frequent – such as apple orchards, watering holes, sugar refineries. It’s a brilliant project. Not much of a fashion statement for the hapless honey bees involved, but a brilliant research project, nevertheless. During the past century, we used to sit by the beehive and grab a bee by the wings, affix a dab of colour on her thorax, make a few notes in the journal, then run around to the orchards and watering holes with butterfly nets, trying to retrieve a few samples. It worked, but the sample set was certainly not a swarm of 5,000. This new technique, developed by Dr Paulo de Souza of Australia’s CSIRO Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is expected to provide useful data suggesting the way bees interact with the environment, encounter pesticides, and spend free afternoons. The system may even anticipate strategies to combat Colony Collapse Disorder.
According to research leader de Souza, “This is a non-destructive process and the sensors appear to have no impact on the bee’s ability to fly and carry out its normal duties.” This obviously reduces the perception that some bees are being hurt to help other bees. (Although that last sentence sums up the essence of the bees’ communal society.) It is also essential that the monitor not encumber the forager at her chores, else the data might be meaningless. De Souza is probably right thinking the sensors don’t interfere with the bees’ work. Honey bees are amazing animals. Carrying a backpack would not send the worker off to school nor is she likely to sit at home trying to incorporate the device into her hive’s satellite television receiver.