Marking our bees – what might it reveal?
Bear with me on this; I am not talking about traditional methods and practices for marking Queens. That has all been rehearsed, explained and justified by beekeepers that are far, far more knowledgeable and experienced than me.
My thoughts on the subject of this piece have been shaped by a personal set of interests and experiences.
1. For more than five years I championed a group, based in and around Cambridge but whose membership extended beyond. I also had the privilege to visit academics, health specialists, companies and inventors in USA and Canada.
This included addressing and chairing meetings and conferences to support and promote the use of a particular technology – wireless. My field of interest is the application of wireless and computer technologies to monitoring, managing and enhancing human health and wellbeing. This is a very diverse field and includes monitoring soldiers in battle field situations, managing chronic health conditions through tracking vital signs , and tagging movable assets in the hospital environment.
2. Earlier this year I read Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy. I thoroughly recommend the book to those who have not read it. It reports and interprets research that extends over many decades and is best described as a behavioural study to explain how a honeybee swarm decides where to set up its new home.
It is worth an investment of your time to read the book for at least two reasons. First it demonstrates a level of dedication to basic honeybee science which I believe will impress and fascinate any beekeeper. Second it answers questions about how a superorganism has evolved to make what, without being anthropomorphic, shows a
capacity to reach a ‘reasoned’ decision. Included in the research techniques is the application of coloured and numbered identifying discs to individual honeybees. This allowed observation and recording of the movements of the individual scouts between swarm and potential sites among which the swarm will ultimately decide to make its
new home. This painstaking work is truly impressive.
3. I referred earlier to the business of wireless tracking of assets as they move around a hospital site, e.g. wheelchairs,
beds, and pieces of medical equipment. This kind of asset tracking uses Radio Frequency Identification tags. Radiofrequency identification (RFID) uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to
objects. The tags contain electronically stored information. Passive tags collect energy from a nearby RFID reader's
interrogating radio waves. RFIDs are easy to conceal or incorporate in other items. For example, in 2009 researchers at Bristol University successfully glued RFID micro-transponders to live ants in order to study their
behaviour. This trend towards increasingly miniaturized RFIDs is likely to continue as technology advances. Hitachi holds the record for the smallest RFID chip, at 0.05 mm × 0.05 mm. This is 1/64th the size of the previous record holder, the mu-chip. Manufacture is enabled by using the silicon-on-insulator (SOI) process. These dust-sized chips
can store 38-digit numbers using 128-bit Read Only Memory (ROM). A major challenge is the attachment of antennas, thus limiting read range to only millimetres.
4. There have recently been articles about applying wireless telemetry to honeybee hives to record, temperature, moisture, sounds, hive weight and so on. So clearly there is an interest among academics and technophile beekeepers to gain a better understanding of what goes in a honeybee colony. At the superorganism level this is analogous to the vital signs tracking used in human health applications of wireless technology.
Ok so where are my thoughts leading me? As a beekeeper in his seventh year of beekeeping I have many questions about honeybees. I am inspired by the use of micro-wireless devices and a lifetime of watching and reading about animal behaviourists like Konrad Lorenz, and Sir Peter Scott. In 1973 the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three pioneer practitioners of a new science, ethology—the study of animal behaviour. They were two Austrians, Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, and Dutch-born British researcher Nikolaas (Niko) Tinbergen. All three were acute observers who, through extensive field experience, sought to determine patterns and motivations in the behaviour of animals. Currently the team of presenters and support staff on Springwatch might be your inspiration.
So let us briefly imagine how RFID tags might be used to further the understanding of the behaviour of our honey bees. It would not matter that not every bee was tagged, just a very large number of them, preferably in all hives in an apiary. What would be needed is a unique identifying number for each tagged bee and a hive entrance reading device capable of sending a record of bee movements back to a computer with appropriate software to analyse and summarise the movement data.
Let us park the question of exactly how such tags could be applied to thousands of bees in each colony. Perhaps the dust sized tags could be sprayed on to the bees in an aerosol. This process could be repeated, say every six to eight weeks in April, June and August. The software could sort out instances where the same bee carried
more than one tag.
The current cost of passive RFID tags is a few pence each. The cost would need to be reduced for this applicationto around a penny each so that a project to monitor a colony would be something like £50 - £100 for a season.
There would be costs for the readers, telemetry and software, each useable for more than one season. Given the money that beekeeping technophile enthusiasts are willing to spend on their kit, this sort of cost is affordable.
Some examples of behavioural questions were we might explore and add to our knowledge through this technology include:
The frequency and direction of drifting – important to understanding disease transmission
Age profile of drifters
The frequency and direction of robbing
Age profile of robbers
Age of bees undertaking foraging
Number and frequency of foraging trips
Age profile and longevity of colony members
Response of colony to manipulations by the beekeeper
Revealing previously unknown honeybee behaviours
Each of these elements could be related to the time and date, weather conditions, location (including proximity to known land uses, ecology and farming practices). Other environmental triggers of behaviours may be revealed.
A capability to tag individual bees with RFID might allow academics to undertake research currently regarded as impossible or too difficult to justify the cost or effort. Opening up the technology to individual beekeepers at an affordable price would generate opportunities for imaginative citizen science.