Globally, honey bee colonies are under threat. Whether from disease-spreading Varroa mites, toxic pesticides, or extreme weather, these pollinators have experienced a dramatic decline over the past decade. This has been especially prevalent across Europe and North America in a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
One country where populations remain stable, however, is Australia and it is here that researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have placed tiny trackers on 15,000 European honey bees, in order to learn more about bee health and productivity.
‘The fact that Australia has hives free of Varroa, and free of Varroa-cides, lets us do some important experiments that cannot be easily performed elsewhere in the world,’ said Dr Saul Cunningham, pollination researcher at CSIRO. ‘This puts Australia in a good position to act as a control group for research on this major issue that could one day become our problem too. Part of the idea of the project is to compare hives in many different places, and under different management regimes, so that we can try to tease out the different contributors to poor bee health.’
The manually-placed micro-sensors track individual bees and their movements in and around hives, collecting data that could one day provide vital warnings of future threats, with any significant changes in normally predictable bee behaviour being a potential red flag.
‘The sensors operate in a similar way to an aeroplane’s black box flight recorder, in that they provide us with vital information about what stress factors impact bee health,’ said Professor Paulo de Souza, CSIRO Science Leader. ‘The tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate.’
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.