Bee Backpacks

September 2, 2015

It’s not only school children wearing backpacks these days; an international team of researchers is equipping honey bees with tiny RFID backpacks.  Led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia, the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health is investigating the global decline of honey bee populations by outfitting insects with these miniature high-tech backpacks.

As our own children head back to school, backpacks have been on my mind as it turns out that our twin 5th grade boys’ packs from last year are now too small to fit their oversize 3-inch binders into them along with their lunch boxes and assorted gear. Thinking we were doing the smart thing by investing in the more expensive, but more durable-looking binders with the reinforced spines and rubberized edges—we nonetheless forget to check whether these “slightly” wider binders would actually fit easily in their backpacks. It’s now a struggle to wedge them in sideways (the rubberized edges catch on the backpack’s polyester interior) and zip everything securely inside.

Our 7th grade daughter is struggling with another backpack-related issue. She was assigned a locker that is missing its lock (there’s a big hole where the combination lock should be) with the reassurance that it will be fixed “soon”. In the meantime, she hauls her extremely heavy backpack around all day. We told her it was good practice for college, but in reality we’re slightly worried she’ll be stoop-shouldered by the second week of school.

Despite these minor hiccups, the transition from summer to school has gone relatively smoothly so far. However, I’ll not be taking backpacks for granted anytime soon especially after I came across this enterprising honey bee backpack initiative. Scientists have tagged 15,000 honey bees in Australia and Brazil with microsensors weighing only 5.4 mg. These sensors collect data about individual insect behavior in and around the hive. The data is sent electronically to off-site computers for the scientists to study and observe the effects of disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the health of bees and their ability to pollinate.

According to the Natural Defense Resource Council, 1 in 4 honey bee colonies in the US have disappeared since 1990. Since bees are typically predictable creatures, any changes in their movements and behavior may reflect stressors or changes in key environmental factors. Scientists participating in the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health believe that if they can model their movements, they’ll identify when a backpack-carrying bee’s activity shows variation and pinpoint possible causes. This research will hopefully give researchers the insights they need to help protect the honey bee population worldwide.