Bumble_beeAll over the world, it appears that the populations of various species of bees are in decline. In the U.K. at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, one specific species, the bumble bee, is dying off at a rapid pace.

To remedy the situation, scientists at Kew have invented tiny bee backpacks made from an RFID chip and copper wire. The design relies on the bees coming within range of signal receivers. When they were first developed, the range was only about an inch, but it has since improved to a radius of about eight feet which makes them feasible for tracking insects.

The Nature World Report, in its analysis of the situation at Kew, quoted Dr. Darah Barlow, a Kew restoration ecologist, who spoke about the improvement in radio technology that allowed these devices to take shape.

“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,” Barlow said.

Barlow, however, is not responsible for inventing the backpacks; they are the invention of Dr. Mark O’Neill who said that he has made about 50 of them so far. He solders each one by hand and is reportedly working to make them smaller. Even at their present size, though, they are said not to interfere with the life or health of the bees they track.

O’Neill attaches a backpack to each bee only after having temporarily sedated it with cool temperature. He then puts each backpack in place with super glue before allowing the insects to go about their bee business which, according to what researchers said they know so far, includes about 20 minutes of foraging time each day and about 0.6 miles of flight.

The time of life when bees begin to forage appears to be vital to the long-term success of a hive. Both The Independent and the L.A. Times reported earlier this year about the effect of environmental stressors on honeybees. They say that when parasitic attacks or pesticides affect the bees, hives tend to send young and inexperienced foragers out to find food because many older bees that were once responsible for foraging had died. Those young foragers also reportedly die earlier than their older counterparts who are sent away from hives later in their lives.

The L.A. Times reported that one study found honeybees younger than 14 days old would leave their hives. At that age, they were less likely to survive their initial outing than bees with more life experience inside hives. As for the bumble bees in the U.K., Nature World Report says they should live to be about three months old. The backpacks should help determine if there has been a drop in lifespan for their bees because the RFID chips should last for at least that length of time.

Image courtesy of Sffubs via Wikimedia Commons