Bees with Backpacks Move to Real World

University of Tasmania / Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture    May 25, 2016

To research honeybees with the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA), Ryan Warren studied more than agricultural science – he learned the basics of electrical engineering as well.

Ryan has helped to develop technology that could reveal how weather, chemicals, or disease affect the health of honeybees and their hives, and ultimately, the pollination of our crops.

For his Honours degree, he worked on an antenna system that could be attached to the front of hives to detect bees wearing tiny identification tags, known as RFID (radio frequency identification).

“About one thousand bees were tagged in my project. However, the problem was that bees would come into the hive but the system wouldn’t detect them,” Ryan said.

“So I tested different ways you could set up the antenna to best pick up the bees and detect their movements to and from the hive.”

The antennas are small ceramic squares fitted in six different arrangements around the entrance to the hive.

Ryan’s research was the first time the RFID technology had been used on a full-strength commercial hive containing about 60,000 bees, instead of in the lab or with smaller test boxes.

“I’ve taken an existing system and refined it so that it could actually be used in the field to get some biologically relevant findings. You can generate all the data you want, but they’re just numbers unless you relate it to something meaningful,” he said.

Not only did that mean understanding the physics of radiowaves, but a crash course in computer coding.

“The antenna system generated 1.2 million lines of data over two months, and no-one had ever had a crack at analysing that amount of data,” Ryan said.

His work earned him the 2018 National Student Award from Ag Institute Australia.

One of Ryan’s supervisors was TIA insect expert Dr Stephen Quarrell, whose background in industrial electronics came in handy for a project involving bees, radio frequencies, and antennas.

“Ryan’s work will enable us to better understand how different stresses like pesticide exposure or crop pollination might impact on hive vigour or their ability to survive long, cold winters,” Dr Quarrell said.

Now he has figured out the most reliable way to detect tagged bees, Ryan is starting his PhD to look at applying the technology commercially.

“My plan is to research how to improve pollination in protected cropping systems like poly tunnels and netted orchards,” he said.

He intends to work with the horticultural industry and develop research partnerships with growers around access, data sharing, and expertise.

“We can use the bee tagging technology to understand how to maintain hive health, in order to boost pollination for growers and their crops.”

Ryan said that hive owners who provide pollination services want to know if pesticides affect their bees and their honey.

“When you move bees into orchards, they are exposed to whatever chemicals are in the environment, such as pesticides.”

“I’d like to compare tagged bees in hives with and without pesticides, in the same netted crop with a known chemical history.”

“The radio tagging is a pretty powerful tool, because you can expose the bees to particular pesticides and then collect data on whether they’re less active or failing to return,” Ryan said.

The European Union recently decided to restrict the use of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, because of concerns they are linked with the collapse of honeybee colonies.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (AVPMA) has stated that it’s “not planning to review the use of neonicotinoids in Australia at this stage.”

Ryan said that a major advantage of researching honeybees in Tasmania is that hives here are relatively free of diseases and pests (such as Varroa mite).

“Hopefully the radio tagging technology could act as an early warning system, and we can find something to pre-empt the colony collapse we’re seeing elsewhere in the world,” he said.

Ryan Warren’s PhD project is part of the new National PhD Leadership Program in Horticulture, funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia and coordinated by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tasmania.

This article appeared in Tasmanian Country on 25 May 2018.