The bee population is declining at an alarming rate. To determine what's happening, researchers are fitting bees with tracking backpacks, recording behavior and activity that will hopefully shed light on the kind of threats the pollinators are facing.

The Royal Botanical Garden in Kew in the U.K. is the first to test out the tracking backpacks using technology created by Mark O'Neill from Tumbling Dice tech firm. Each tracker is fitted with radio frequency identification tags, individually identifying bees that are part of the test. The trackers are attached to the bees' backs, a process that takes about 10 minutes. Bees are also chilled before the trackers can be placed to make them more docile.

To ensure the trackers don't interfere with the bees' normal flight, they are made to be lighter than the bees and are placed on their backs at the center of their gravity. Each tracker has a range of up to 8.2 feet, with readings logged into Raspberry Pi computers located in a flower patch and around a hive to most effectively track bee movement.

With average forage time observed at 20 minutes, this suggests that worker bees are out and about exploring an area about 0.6 miles in size.

"This piece of the puzzle, of bee behavior, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline," said Sarah Barlow, a Kew Gardens restoration ecologist, adding the new technology opens up new possibilities for researchers to keep tabs on bees in the landscape.

In Europe alone, almost 2,000 species of bees are present. However, already 10 percent of them are facing threats of extinction while another 50 species or so are expected to see the same decline in the near future. Britain, in particular, is looking at two of its bee species rapidly declining. Main threats are believed to be loss of areas in the wild where bees can forage, which is mostly brought about by development.

While a declining bee population sounds like bad news for bees, it is also detrimental to humans, affecting food security with the drop in pollinators corresponding to a drop in produce.

Hopefully monitoring bee behavior and activity with the tracking backpacks will paint a clearer picture of the threats bees are facing, allowing people to take the necessary steps in protecting them. The tracking backpacks are being tested now in the U.K. but the results of the effort will benefit everyone in the world.

Photo: Bob Peterson | Flickr

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