Handling the hive mind: RFID tags on bees
08 May 2017
Radio Frequency Identification tags track bees and provide researchers with data that human observation cannot.
Just like honey bees, bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) play important roles as pollinators, helping with agriculture and fruit production. But despite the ecological services they provide, many aspects of their biology still remain a mystery.
By outfitting each bumble bee with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag – similar to the sensors that protect merchandise from shoplifters – researchers were able to keep tabs on them at all times and log the data automatically instead of relying on human observations limited to certain times.
“The way these studies have typically been done requires a human observer sitting in front of a hive entrance and taking notes all day, and nobody wants to do that,” says Avery Russell, a doctoral student in entomology and insects in the lab of Daniel Papaj, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.
“With the RFID chips, we can track every nectar and pollen collection trip made over each worker’s lifespan and a portion of the colony’s lifespan.”
“With the RFID chips, we can track every nectar and pollen collection trip made over each worker’s lifespan.”
The researchers were surprised to find a big difference in efficiency, with the most active foragers making 40 times the number of trips each day as the least active workers.
“Interestingly, when we studied the morphology between very active foragers and workers that barely leave the hive, we found that bees with more sensitive antennae foraged more,” Russell says.
Similar variation has been in observed in honey bees and other eusocial species, where some workers are much more active than others, but no one had seen it to this extreme due to the limits of human observations.
To track the bees’ behaviour, the team superglued tiny RFID tags to the backs of the bees. Each tag weighs only 2 to 3 percent of the bee’s weight. A Y-tube connects the hive to two arenas, one that offers pollen and one that offers nectar. When a bee leaves the hive to forage, it can choose to go to the pollen chamber or the nectar chamber. Two RFID readers mounted at the entrance keep track of the bees going in and out and help the researchers collect a wealth of data.
Research: University of Arizona