Bee big data project helps reveal causes of colony collapse

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CSIRO’s 5,000 ‘test’ bees have been buzzing around for nearly a year now with their microsensor backpacks, giving scientists fascinating insights into honey-bee habits.

The microsensors CSIRO has attached to 5,000 honeybees are yielding valuable insights into the bees' habits.
The microsensors CSIRO has attached to 5,000 honeybees are yielding valuable insights into the bees' habits.
CSIRO

It has long been suspected that honey bees, creatures of habit that they are, simply return to their familial hive homes at the end of a long day’s foraging. But for some bees, it seems, laying their hat in a particular hive doesn’t necessarily make it their home.

The data already gathered from tiny sensor backpacks CSIRO scientists affixed to bees in 2014 suggests that for some vagabond bees, sleeping over different hives is a regular occurrence, part of their active social lives. 

Why do we care about bee-haviour?

Honey bees are essential for food production. In fact they, are responsible for one third of the food we eat through the pollination services they provide. Yet the health of honey bees on a global scale is under increasing pressure.

To ensure the sustainable production of crops dependent on honey bee pollination, we must protect and improve the health of our bee populations.

Enter the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health (GIHH), an international alliance of researchers led by CSIRO in a tightly focused, well-coordinated national and global effort to better understand the diverse stresses impacting bee health.

In order to learn more about these tiny but vitally important creatures and the issues causing their population collapse, thousands of tiny sensor chips have been glued to the backs of thousands of bees. Don’t worry – the sensors weigh in at a mere five micrograms each – a light load easily managed by honey bees!

One of CSIRO's 'test' honey-bees goes about its buzz-ness: scientists are gaining new insights into bees' habits that may help humans save them from extinction.
One of CSIRO's 'test' honey-bees goes about its buzz-ness: scientists are gaining new insights into bees' habits that may help humans save them from extinction.
CSIRO

The smart sensor backpacks work in much the same way as does a vehicle e-tag system, with strategically placed receivers identifying and recording the movements of individual bees as they fly in and out of their hives, and feeding the information back to an Intel minicomputer that is remotely accessible.

These high-tech micro-sensors are being used to gather a wealth of complex data that CSIRO’s team is analysing to determine best management practices for maintaining healthy and productive honey bee colonies.

What is the sensor data telling us?

Along with their preferred sleeping arrangements, CSIRO’s research team has learnt some fascinating things about the way bees operate.

  1. Honey-bees don't like to get wet.
    By correlating bee movement data with environmental data, such as weather stats, we’ve learned that bees, like humans, are not overly fond of doing things outdoors in the rain. Instead they choose to forego foraging on inclement days and stay indoors. And who would blame them!

    European honey-bees cluster in a hive: bees, CSIRO researchers have discovered, prefer to stay indoors when it rains.
    European honey-bees, CSIRO researchers have discovered, prefer to stay indoors when it rains.
    Nick Pitsas, CSIRO
  2. Tasmanian honey-bees - unlike their counterparts in Brazil - like to sleep in.
    The sensor system has helped CSIRO’s bee team observe differences between the routines of bees on two continents. Tracking a colony of bees in Brazil, they’ve discovered that, unlike our Tasmanian bees, who prefer to retire early and sleep in, Brazilian bees get to bed and wake up earlier, but take two-hour siestas during the day.
    European honey-bees (Apis mellifera) gathering pollen: CSIRO researchers have found that bees navigate by colour.
    European honey-bees (Apis mellifera) gathering pollen: CSIRO researchers have found that bees navigate by colour.
    Denis Anderson, CSIRO
  3. Honeybees colour-sense their way home.
    The sensor data has also shown that bees navigate by colour. Field experiments that involved labelling hives with coloured stickers have shown that individual bees soon identify with the sticker colour on their hives to the extent that they will follow their particular colour to a different hive if the stickers are switched. This is terrific news for beekeepers, who might use this information to divert healthy honey bees away from hives that are in the process of collapse simply by relocating their colour stickers.

Bee sensor project goes global

CSIRO hopes that discoveries such as these will contribute to better understanding and management of honey bee health, in Australia and around the world, helping to increase environmental and economic benefits for farmers and beekeepers and make a valuable contribution to sustainable farming practices and food security.

But CSIRO isn’t stopping here: its researchers are keen to gather as much data as possible through the GIHH project to get a better understanding of honey bee behaviour and of various impacts on bee health.

This means taking the project global, which is why CSIRO is calling on research institutions around the world to contribute.

If you are interested in joining the project, visit CSIRO’s GIHH page for more info.

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