by Ariel Bogle
Bee populations around the world are dying out, with serious consequences for the global food supply, and no one really knows why.
On the west coast of the U.S., the lack of honey bees available to pollinate crops is already having a drastic effect on the almond industry, while in China, people are beginning to do pollination by hand, Paulo de Souza, a CSIRO science leader in micro-sensing technologies, told Mashable Australia.
This decline could be the result of a whole host of stresses, de Souza said, from the pesticides being used in agriculture, to the deprivation of habitat, parasites and extreme weather.
The Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health, announced Tuesday, is a project that aims to tackle the problem. Involving scientists in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico and the UK, as well as Intel and Hitachi Chemical, among other companies, it's being headed by Australia's science association, CSIRO.
As part of the project, thousands of bees will be fitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) micro-sensors, or "backpacks."
"It works like an e-tag or a license plate on a car," de Souza said. "Each bee will have a specific code ... and we can follow when the bee leaves the hive and returns." This way, data can be collected detailing any change to the bees' movements and behaviour patterns in response to stress.
Getting a sensor on a bee is no easy task. De Souza said the team will hold the bee against honeycomb for a second with a tweezer, add a little super glue, and the tag should stay there for the life of the bee. "This works well in Australia, because bees here are very gentle," he said. "In Brazil, they are more aggressive, so you can put them in the fridge and they fall asleep [and you can put the sensor on], among other techniques."
The scientists will also use Intel's Edison boards inside hives to record data about the bees and send it back to scientists. A little larger than a postage stamp, de Souza said the technology was ideal for this type of application. "To have a computer in the middle of the Amazon, it has to consume little energy," he said. The board is powered by solar panels, as well as being wireless, small and flexible.
The initiative needs more than two years to collect enough data, with scientists working in the northern and southern hemispheres, de Souza suggested. The aim is to have 1,000 hives fitted with Edison boards and around 2.5 million sensors attached to bees worldwide within one year.
"We hope to leave a legacy for the bees and for scientists," de Souza said. "We are developing the future of food for the world ... we have to do something before it becomes too late."