Scientists are still no closer to discovering why millions of western honeybees are simply disappearing from the landscape.
The phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), continues to hit North America hard, wiping out nearly half its bee population, with similar losses reported and growing in Europe over the past decade.
The problem facing scientists, farmers, and soon, just about everyone who eats, is that there are simply so many factors which could cause CCD: pesticides, fungus, mites, pathogens, genetic modification, extreme weather – the list is essentially as long as long as researchers want to make it.
“One day you’ll see 50,000 working, happy bees in a hive, the next day you go and all the bees are gone, dead,” the CSIRO’s Professor Paulo de Souza says.
“Bees are declining at a very steady pace and we just don’t understand why,” he said. “We will soon be having serious problems.”
At this rate, de Souza says it’s “very likely many farms will become unsustainable in the future.
“Everything we eat relies on pollination of crops by honeybees.”
In 2013, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island even restocked its shelves to show how no honeybees translates into real life:
In Tasmania, banana prices rose to $14 per kilo after Cyclone Larry wiped 80 per cent of crops out in Far North Queensland in 2006. Without bees, the increase in labour costs to pollinate crops will similarly make fruit an expensive commodity. De Souza says apples at a $100 a kilo would not be unrealistic.
Australia is one of the only countries so far known to be free of parasitic mite Varroa destructor, which has spread around the world since 1960 and has proven a major factor in CCD. It arrived on New Zealand’s North Island in 2000 and had spread to the South Island by 2006.
“New Zealanders are already paying more for apples, manuka honey,” de Souza said.
And that’s a problem just in developed countries, which have ways to manage pollination. In developing countries, the scenario is bleak.
“You would see starvation, people fleeing from borders in situations very similar to those we saw in the droughts of the 80s,” de Souza said.
Nearly 12 months ago, de Souza and his team in Hobart, Tasmania, began a process that will hopefully pull data on CCD from all over the world. Importantly, pull data from individual bees.
It involves Intel, and the much-lauded “Internet of Things”. And it’s incredible – here’s how it works:
This is Professor Paolo de Souza:
He helped establish the project in the Huon Valley, in Tasmania’s south, late last year.
Up to 5000 sensors were fitted to the backs of the bees before being released into the wild – the first time such large numbers of insects have been used for this kind of monitoring.
The sensors – Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags – measure just 2.5mm x 2.5mm and weigh 5.4 milligrams. The information they transmit can be read from up to 30cm away.
They’re like a tiny eTag. A reader at the entrance to the hive can record information from up to 50 bees at once. That’s more than enough to catch all the comings and goings.
The information is processed by “Edison”. Edison is Intel’s tiny computer built specifically to run wearable devices and power the Internet of Things.
It’s often compared to Raspberry Pi, which is unfair to both devices. Edison is smaller, has wifi and Bluetooth capability. It’s not as powerful as Pi, however, and has less USB ports. But crucially, for the CSIRO, Edison uses less power and has the ability to reboot itself after a crash.
With Intel as a partner, the CSIRO has been able to get full kits to beekeepers and researchers for $400, and estimates they’ll return 20 months of continued experiments.
Here’s how the whole setup looks:
The CSIRO’s research to date shows no abnormal effects on the bees wearing the microsensors, apart from a small lag in carrying pollen back to the hive, and a reduction in how much they can carry.
Can you spot the iBee?
This “spider” formation on a piece of CSIRO equipment is a very healthy sign that shows the bees don’t care about the increased interest in their activity:
The experiment has now spread from Tasmania to the Amazon forest in Brazil, which is where Edison comes into its own.
The wireless connectivity allows researchers to collect data on the hive from a distance, which is great for a) not disturbing the bees, and b) because “it’s good to keep some distance from bees, particularly the angry bees in the Amazon”.
That will also help when the CSIRO establishes “some experiments in Chernobyl” to see the impact of radiation on native beehives.
The signals are used to build a comprehensive 3D model which visualises how the bees may be moving through the landscape. This gives researchers insights into bee movement, behaviours and responses to stressors that affect bee health and pollination.
Here you can see how missions get shorter as the colder months arrive:
The CSIRO hopes the information will also help farmers in real-time. De Souza said he can see in Tasmania that when “it’s 12 degrees, it’s a little bit windy, I can I can tell you how many bees will be flying, I can tell you how many bees you need to pollinate the cherries as they blossom.”
There’s now 20 hives established in Australia and Brazil, with some 15,000 bees individually tagged. De Souza hopes to have around 1000 hives established globally within a year.
Some sacrifice is necessary. De Souza says the CSIRO has field experiments where hives are in place near a sugared water supply which has been contaminated with pesticide, just one of many “stressors” on the long list of things which could contribute to CCD.
Because bees live for between two to four months, the RFIDs allow scientists to see the impact “over generations of acute exposure to a given chemical”. They are also comparing bees with and without access to genetically modified pollen.
De Souza says the CSIRO hopes to have enough information from around the globe to publish its first report in “about 12 months”.
“Due to the urgent and global nature of this issue, we saw the need to develop a methodology that any scientist could easily deploy,” de Souza says.
“This way we can share and compare data from around the world to collaboratively investigate bee health.
“This united effort is a fantastic example of the Internet of Things.”
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