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Bee 'e-tag' unlocks swarm secrets

A drop of glue, tweezers, a micro-sensor and there it is - a bee that's also an e-tag.

The sensors are being rolled out across the backs of four Tasmanian swarms this summer in world-first CSIRO research to track the movements of thousands of bees in the wild.

It is the first time such large numbers of any insect have been employed for environmental monitoring, and brings hope of disease control breakthrough at a critical time for the honey bee industry, the CSIRO said.

"This could just revolutionise things for us," Tasmanian beekeeper Peter Norris said. "It's just amazing what they've got inside that tiny chip."

Mr Norris, whose bees are part of the project, said the micro-sensors offered the potential to fight disease, work out the best placement of hives for honey return - even perhaps future GPS tracking.

CSIRO micro-sensor specialist Paulo de Souza said entomologists and beekeepers planned to fit 50 sensors a day to bees already calmed by refrigeration, release them, and watch where they fly.


The radio frequency identification sensors work like a car's toll-road e-tag, recording when the insect passes a checkpoint.

These bees will yield data from flights around apple and cherry orchards of Geeveston, south of Hobart, past monitoring points in their hives and feeding stations.

Data will then be assembled from about 5000 sensors to build a three-dimensional image of the insects' movements through the landscape. It is called "swarm sensing".

Honey bees are vital to crop pollination globally. But in the northern hemisphere, many are in trouble, hit by colony collapse disorder and varroa mite, which threaten to invade Australian hives.

Dr de Souza said the movements of the Tasmanian bees would be tracked in an attempt to work out the effect of pesticides used to protect bees from these diseases.

"Bees are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule," Dr de Souza said. "Any change in their behaviour indicates a change in their environment.

"Worker bees live around two weeks in summer, and so we plan to keep going across six generations," Dr de Souza said.

He said the 2.5 mm by 2.5 mm sensors could potentially be made even smaller, so that a 1mm sensor could be glued to a mosquito.