It’s never been harder to be a bee.
Parasites, diseases and habitat loss have all taken a toll on bees and other pollinating insects, a crucial part of the global food production network, with billions of dollars riding on their tiny backs.
Now, a handful have something else riding on those backs: little sensors placed there to help researchers track their movements and learn more about how bees react to stresses in their environment.
Researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia have glued trackers that measure only a quarter of a centimeter onto the backs of the bees, a configuration some have likened to tiny bee backpacks.
The trackers use radio-frequency identification technology to record information when the bees pass a data logger.
Because bees tend to be predictable, deviations from that routine can help researchers identify stressors in the bee’s environment and develop ways to help them, according to the organization.
“The tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate,” Paulo de Souza, the organization’s science leader, said in a statement.
Concerns about the collapse of honeybee colonies have circled the globe in recent years, but nowhere has the situation been worse than in the United States.
According to the Bee Informed Partnership, a coalition of universities and research labs involved in honeybee research, U.S. beekeepers lost 42.1% of their colonies between April 2014 and April 2015.
Commercially managed colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to a little over 2.6 million in 2013, according to U.S. and U.N. statistics.
Even the White House has sounded the alarm, noting that honeybees are crucial to the production of 90 North American crops and contribute $15 billion a year to the U.S. economy.
Europe has seen smaller, but no less alarming, losses.
Beekeepers in the UK lost nearly 35% of their colonies in from 2012 to 2013, and although that trend has slowed, the European Commission has put a temporary ban on some pesticides and taken other steps to try to protect the bees.
Explanations for the declines run the gamut from life-sucking mites to pesticides to disease, habitat loss, cell phone radiation, aluminum contamination and as-yet-unexplained causes.
Though Australia hasn’t had such dire issues, that actually makes it a great place to do research, said Saul Cunninghan, a pollination researcher for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
“This puts Australia in a good position to act as a control group for research on this major issue that could one day become our problem too,” he said.