Tiny Microchips Glued to Bees to Track Decline

Microchips are being attached to bees to track their populations in an attempt to help reverse the decline in their numbers. RBG Kew

Researchers have been attaching microchips to bees to track changes in their population in an attempt to help reverse the decline in their numbers.

The technology is currently being trialled at The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew in the UK, and scientists working on the project hope that the technology will allow them to get a better insight into the threats that the bee population is facing.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says that bees are under threat in the UK because of changing farming methods that are reducing the number of wildflowers, meaning the insects are struggling to survive.

In partnership with a technology company, Kew Gardens scientists trialled the tiny 4.8mm x 8mm radio frequency identification tags (RFID), which are superglued to the bees' backs, attached with tweezers. The bees are chilled beforehand for around 10 minutes which makes them docile, and then the chips, which weigh less than the bees, are placed in the centre of their back to reduce the risk of altering their flight path.

According to the lead scientist on the project, Dr Sarah Barlow, the technology could be a vital piece of the puzzle in understanding why bee populations have been dwindling.

She said: "These tags are a big step forward in radio technology and no-one has a decent medium to long range tag yet that is suitable for flying on small insects. This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape. This piece of the puzzle, of bee behaviour, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline."

The tags emit signals which means each individual insect can be identified, and this is picked up by a unit which detects the tag up to 1.2m away. It is thought that the detectors could be placed in fields and flower patches to track the flight paths of bees, and compile accurate flight data that has previously been impossible to collate.

The tags could also be used to track potentially invasive species to gain insight into the effect they have on bee populations.

Previous tracking technologies have either had too short a detection range, or have been too heavy to attach to the insects.

The creator of the technology, Dr Mark O'Neill from the firm Tumbling Dice, told the BBC: "The first stage was to make very raw pre-production tags using components I could easily buy. I want to make optimised aerial components which would be a lot smaller. I've made about 50 so far. I've soldered them all on my desk - it feels like surgery."