Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bee backpacks

If you are a regular reader of ESE, then you know I've sometimes blogged about the threat of bee extinction.

This threat of extinction has been given a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. No one is exactly sure why bees are dying off. One strong culprit is the proliferation of a parasite called "varroa" (the logophile in me really digs that word.) This small creature attaches itself to bees and actually sucks the bees' guts out. These mites have become resistant to pesticides. Other speculations include human-made causes such as other pesticides, habitat loss, GMO crops, lack of nutrition, and of course climate change. In an effort to find out just what is happening, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Tasmania has come up with an innovative idea: bee backpacks.

Microscopic sensors will be glued to the backs of 10,000 wild bees. These sensors actually have batteries that are charged through vibration (cool!) These "backpacks" will allow for the bees to be tracked and their locations picked up be sensors at various nodal points, something like an IPASS or other such automated toll road system if you're familiar with such things. Researchers will be able to monitor what each bee is doing in the environment. It's a totally new approach, gathering real-time information on how the bees are interacting with their surroundings, hopefully providing the first clues as to what is going on.

"We just don't understand the combination of stressors that affect honey bees, and we don't know why bee numbers are declining around the world," CSIRO Science Leader Professor Paulo de Souza said. “They might go through extinction; we just don't know. It's happening so frequently that it's now a syndrome called colony collapse disorder, and no scientist working alone would be able to solve this."

Why should we care? It's simple. Bees pollinate. Without pollination we don't have produce like fruit and vegetables. In a world with a growing population and thereby a growing demand for food, this could reach emergency levels sooner than we would like. Here's to hoping data collected by CSIRO can help stave off this disaster.

Will update as results of the study are released.

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