Tracking bees’ decline
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London – Bees are to have tiny backpacks attached to find out why their numbers are in dramatic decline.
The miniature trackers are less than 2in long and so light that they can be superglued to the insects’ backs.
Previous trackers could only detect a bee when it returned to the hive but these will let scientists follow their detailed movements.
Bumblebees and other flying insects are vital to food production as farmers rely on them to pollinate crops.
But 12 of Britain’s 26 bumblebee species are rapidly declining. Rural development and the loss of wild meadows over the last century are thought to be major factors.
But, apart from this, little is known about exactly why the creatures are struggling so badly.
Some scientists blame viruses while others point to pesticides which harm the way bees navigate.
Until now there has been no way to accurately monitor bee movements and so try to help them.
But this has changed with the microchip – 8mm (0.3in) high and 4.8mm (1.9in) wide – created by engineers at Newcastle technology firm Tumbling Dice Ltd. The radio frequency identification tag has a reach of up to 2.5m (8.2ft), allowing bees to be tracked between individual flowers and trees.
The technology has been tested by Dr Sarah Barlow, from Kew Gardens in London. Each bee was chilled for ten minutes to temporarily stun it, allowing the scientists to attach a tracker using normal superglue.
The device will remain in place for the rest of its three-month lifespan.
Dr Barlow said: ‘Although tracking technologies exist, they are limited by size, range and reliability.
‘Until now, tags with mid to long range detection were too large to be carried by honeybees and worker bumblebees. These tags are a big step forward in radio technology.
‘Until now no-one has had a decent medium to long-range tag that was suitable for flying on small insects.
‘This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape.
‘This piece of the puzzle, of bee behaviour, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline.’
Tumbling Dice technical director Dr Mark O’Neill hand-built 50 of the tags, soldering them together on his desk. He is now applying for a patent.