Bee Backpacks Track Foraging
Tiny radios emit signals to help scientists track bee behavior.
When it comes to humans, it's all about the wearable computer these days, so why not bees?
For thousands of years, humans have taken for granted bees and their ability to pollinate our food. Not until they began to die off in record numbers - from Varroa mites and colony collapse disorder - did anyone pay attention.
Where do bees go? What do they pollinate? How far do they fly? No one knew. But lately, researchers are using technology to answer these and other questions.
At Kew Gardens in London, Mark O'Neill and his colleagues have developed a tiny radio device that can be glued to the back of a bee and used to track its behavior.
"This piece of the puzzle, of bee behavior, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline," team member Sarah Barlow, a restoration ecologist from Kew Gardens, told the BBC.
The devices use standard RFID (radio frequency identification) technology - like the kind used to automatically transmit payment information at toll booths. Each lightweight tracker is about 1 millimeter high, 1.5 mm wide and 3 mm long with a whip antenna about 10 to 12 mm long. It's glued to the back of a bee after the bee has been chilled to make it more docile.
The signal has a range of 0.5 meters to 1.2 m.
Radio receivers, which could be positioned around the hive and in a field of flowers, record the bee's unique radio signal each time it flies past. In this way, scientists can begin to map the bee's activities.
For the bees O'Neill's team has tagged so far, they have found that the average "forage time" for a worker bee is around 20 minutes, which means they fly about .6 miles from the hive.
A similar experiment was done last year by a team of scientists at Australia's research institute, CSIRO. Honestly, it seems like bees are getting a lot more, deserved, attention.
The U.S. Geological Survey is posting photos of insects on its
, offering a macro look at this hidden world. First up, this Festive Tiger Beetle (
) was found on top of a butte in Badlands National Park that had ancient windblown sand at its crest. Here, this sand specialist can build its long burrows.
This Agapostemon bee species is one of the most common native bees in the eastern United States. In almost any field there can be hundreds, if not thousands, of these bees visiting a wide variety of blooming plants. One of the largest of the sweat bees, it still goes undetected if you don't get down on your knees, face close, among the flowers. This one was collected at Colorado National Monument, Mesa County, Colo.
This wild bee (
), a female from Grand Tetons National Park, was collected as part of a study of climate change. Most species in this genus are black , but a few, like this one, are as the Latin in name implies, glittering jewels.
This unknown wasp was collected in Cecil County, Md.
This is an unknown species of Robber Fly from Charles County, Md. Robber flies, a very large and widespread type of fly, feed on many different kinds of insects, making them a key player in maintaining the insect balance in different environments.
One species of the rarely seen leafcutting bee, this is
from the sandhills of North Carolina. Leafcutter bees are so called because they cut plant leaves to create the cells in their nests. The bees tend to build their homes in rotted wood or in the strong stems of plants.
is a type of jumping spider. This one was found in Beltsville, Md., but
lives in fields and prairies across North America. It feeds on seasonal plants.
Eggplant Tortoise Beetles like eggplants (go figure), eating holes in the plants' leaves. From the underside, the insects look quite queenly, with their ruffled collars. This one was gathered at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Anne Arundel County, Md.
The Karner blue butterfly,
Lycaeides melissa samuelis
, is endangered. Karner blue butterflies feed on nectar from many different types of flowers, but their larvae can survive on the leaves of only one specific plant, which has been decimated by habitat loss or change.
Deer flies like this one, despite their groovy eyes, deliver a ferocious bite. And no wonder: when the female bites (males don't bite), she lacerates the skin and when the blood flows, sponges it up with her mouth. There are over 110 species of deer fly.
Centris bees, like this one, make their homes in holes, either in trees or in the ground.
The biggest visual difference between damselflies and dragonflies are their wing positions when resting. Dragonflies hold their wings open, while damselflies close them above their backs. This Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly (
) was found on a Beltsville, Md. stream.