Tiny Tracking Chips Will Help Us Understand Why Bees Are Dying

RFID chips are already used to track bees, but a new design boosts their signal to provide more data on bee behavior.

Mar 24 2015, 6:35pm

Image: RBG Kew

​Equipping bees with a new kind of antenna could help further research into what is causing so many of these important pollinators to drop dead.

Bees are dying in drov​es, both from parasitic infections and the mysterious phenomenon of colony collap​se disorder, and scientists are scrambling to pinpoint what's leading to the dwindling num​bers.

But part of the problem with studying tiny, winged insects is that they are rather difficult to track: bees can travel up to f​our miles in search of pollen and nectar. So researchers have been enlisting technology to help them keep tabs on bees' movements and behavior.

The latest advancement in bee-tracking tech is a combination of an RFID chip and a jacked-up antenna that are glued to the back of a bumblebee and send signals to readers dotted around an observation area to track each bee's movements and behavior. Those readers use Raspberry Pi systems (a credit-card-sized, single-board computer) to send the data back to a lab and quantify the bees' movements.

A bee equipped with a tracker, landing on O'Neill's finger. Image: ​RBG Kew

RFID chips are already used to track​ bees, but Mark O'Neill, an engineer and insect enthusiast who designed the new device, tweaked the antenna to boost the signal. Previous designs needed the bee to come within 1 cm of a reader in order to be tracked, O'Neill said, but his antenna is able to send a signal to a reader from as far away as 6 feet.

At 8 mm by 4.8 mm and about 60 milligrams, it's heavier and a bit bigger than previous trackers, like the featherlight 24 mill​igram chips Australian researchers used to track honeybees last year. But O'Neill has only been using hand-made prototypes, which he believes can be made much lighter with a more streamlined manufacturing process.

"We intend to get even lighter because at the moment we're using solder and that's giving us a hell of a big weight budget," O'Neill told me, adding the tweaks he made to the antenna could possibly be made to the RFID chip itself, greatly cutting down on weight and size. "If we can put all the antenna components into the chip, one could get something down to 5 or 10 mg, which would be really super."

The tracker (which O'Neill has not yet named) is attached to bees' backs using superglue, after the bees have been tranquilized using cold air. O'Neill, who is currently in the process of patenting his design, has been working with ecologists at Kew Gardens in London to test out the functionality of his new tracker. Now that they've confirmed it works, Kew and O'Neill are looking for funding to be able to streamline the manufacturing in order to get a consistent product.

They've also tested out integrating the tracker with a computer vision motion detection system O'Neill created so you can get live images of the bees when they approach a reader.

While seeing which flowers a single bee visits on a foraging trip won't unlock the mystery of colony collapse disorder, tracking many bees over a wide area will help give researchers a clue into bee behavior and might alert them to problems sooner. And without technology, even our best, educated guesses about bee behavior can fall short: a study from 2​011 that tracked bumblebees using radio telemetry revealed the insects travel much further than previously estimated.

But that study also found the cumbersome, 200 mg trackers slowed the bees down and led to longer rest periods, indicating they were too heavy. Pushing the technology to become lighter, smaller, and produce a longer-range signal is a necessary step towards improved understanding of these essential insects.