The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is working in collaboration with the Newcastle tech company, Tumbling Dice Ltd, to trial a tiny microchip that can be glued to bees to track their movements in the landscape.  

This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape which will help scientists to understand more about their decline.

The reading distance of the new miniaturised radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are a 4.8mm x 8mm in size, is far superior to anything else on the market – enabling Kew’s researchers to detect tagged bees up to a 1.2m diameter from a detecting unit.

Small tagging devices currently available only allow bees to be detected at distances of up to 1cm once they exit or return to their hives. Once successfully trialled, the new technology will help scientists to track bees between flower patches in the landscape, providing new insights into the threats facing bee populations and the important pollination services they provide – such as the largely unknown impacts of habitat fragmentation and pesticides.

The new technology, developed by Tumbling Dice Ltd, was trialled by Kew scientist Dr Sarah Barlow on bumblebees in Kew’s Quarantine House, which is behind the scenes at Kew. A purpose-built compartment inside the glass house had a bee proof screen with detection devices.

Each RFID tag emits a unique signal to identify individual insects that are picked up by a detector unit. The technology’s application in the wild could see a network of field-deployed detectors positioned within patches of flowers dotted around the landscape to track the distances and paths of tagged bees. This approach to tracking insects has never been attempted before because of the minute detection range of current lightweight tags which are too small to detect arbitrary bee movements in the landscape.

The RFID tags were glued to the bees’ backs using standard superglue. Before the tags were attached the bees were chilled for approximately 10 minutes to make them more docile, the tag was then glued onto their bodies with tweezers.

Dr Sarah Barlow says, “Although tracking technologies exist they are limited by size, range and reliability and, until now, tags with mid to long-range detection were too large to be carried by honeybees and worker bumblebees, and have been used on larger insects and birds.

“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. This piece of the puzzle, of bee behaviour, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline.”

This technology could also be used, for example, to study the movements of alien insect pests that have dramatic impacts on native flora and fauna and cause serious economic losses to farmers every year. By understanding the requirements of these pests we will be better able to devise control strategies. These are just a few timely examples of how, with the use of the new technology, studying insect movement has wider reaching consequences for understanding the world around us.