Swarm sensing: tiny technology creates a buzz

March 18, 2015

From: CSIRO | Australia’s national science agency

Thousands of honey bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny sensors as part of a world-first research program to monitor the insects and their environment using a technique known as ‘swarm sensing’.


The Challenge

Honey bee populations at risk

Bees are the world’s most prolific pollinators of food crops – with one third of the food that we consume each day relying on pollination, these little creatures contribute billions every year to the global economy. Healthy bees are a sign of a healthy agricultural industry.

Unfortunately honey bee populations in some parts of the world are at risk from a number of interacting factors such as agriculture intensification, Varroa mite, bee pathogens, changes in bee food supplements and pesticides. Of key biosecurity importance is the dreaded Varroa mite a parasite that feeds on the blood of bees and transmits pathogens that kill off bee populations.

While Varroa has not appeared in Australia, there is a very real risk, with Varroa having now spread to our neighbours in New Zealand and Indonesia.

Our Response

Bee sensors take flight to help farmers

Figuring out where insects spend their time, how far they travel and what they are doing has traditionally been very difficult.

But our micro-tracking technique, known as swarm sensing, can reveal this information in unprecedented detail. As part of our world first swarm sensing research program, we have fitted tiny micro-sensors to thousands of bees in Tasmania, in order to monitor their movements and their environment.

The sensors are tiny radio frequency identification sensors that work in a similar way to a vehicle’s e-tag, recording when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. The information is then sent remotely to a central location and we can build a comprehensive three-dimensional model and visualise how the insects move through their landscape.

The sensors are 2.5mm x 2.5mm in size and weigh about 5 milligrams each. A new generation as small as 1.5mm x 1.5mm is being designed; less is more, as smaller sensors will interfere less with the insect’s behaviour.

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