Oregon Bee Trackers Use Tiny Sensors To Trace Bugs

Wireless 'wires' help researchers know where bumblebees roam.

Published on: Oct 11, 2013

Miniature wireless sensors to be attached to busy bumblebees are on the drawing table at Oregon State University.

The tracing devices will help researchers obtain real-time information on the behavior of the bumblebee, and come up with important new information to help farmers understand this vital pollen vehicle.

"Lack of pollination is a risk to human food production," explains Sujaya Rao, an OSU entomologist. "With our sensors, we are searching for answers to basic questions such as: Do all members of one colony go to pollinate the same field together? Do bumblebees communicate in the colony where the food is located? Are bumblebees loyal as a group?

Oregon Bee Trackers Use Tiny Sensors To Trace Bugs
Oregon Bee Trackers Use Tiny Sensors To Trace Bugs

Many aspects of the bumblebee patterns are unknown because of their small size, rapid flight speeds, and hidden below-ground nests. Unlocking their secrets will help science understand the insects better and help study their roles in pollination of blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, tomatoes and many other staple crops of Pacific Northwest agriculture.

"The more we can learn about bumblebees' customs of foraging, pollination and communication, the better we can promote horticultural habits that are friendly to bees in agricultural settings," explains Rao.

The sensor project is a project of Rao's with OSU's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The three year collaboration to harness bees with sensors began this month and will be supported by a $500,000 USDA grant to run for three years.

OSU engineers will be testing small, lightweight electronic sensors that avoid affecting bee location and movement. The sensors, powered by a wireless energy transfer instead of a battery, will be of the right weight and size to avoid interfering with the bee's activities.

"New technologies allows us to build sensors with extremely small dimensions," says Arun Natarajan, principal investigator in OSU's High-Speed Integrated Circuits lab.

"The concept of placing wireless sensors on insects is a relatively unexplored area, and we're hopeful that our research can have vast applications in the future."