Honey bee colonies are dying more often and more quickly. We urgently need to understand why, and how to prevent it.
Associate Professor Andrew Barron’s research examined why bee colonies sometimes rapidly collapse completely losing their adult population in a matter of weeks. Barron and his team from the Department of Biological Sciences developed a new application of radio frequency identification technology that tagged individual bees with a 1 milligram digital tag to report the ID of the bee every time it left or returned to the hive.
The system then recorded the flight activity of thousands of individual bees with absolute precision throughout their entire lifespan. These new data showed that bees reacted to stress by becoming foragers when very young, but the young bees performed terribly as foragers. Most of the young foragers completed just a handful of successful foraging trips before dying. This intensified the pressures on the colony setting up conditions for catastrophic population decline.
The team used this data to construct a mathematical model of colony demographics, which accurately captured the unusual features of a colony collapse. This research reveals for the first time the mechanism of a hive collapse. This in turn proposes the most effective interventions to address population decline and rescue a failing colony.
The work, launched in response to the global problem of declining bee populations, has been highly commmended for research excellence.
The team is now pursuing field research in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture and CSIRO to test interventions to rescue colonies and develop new and cost-effective sensor strategies to give beekeepers an early warning that a colony is at risk while there is still time to intervene. This is not just good for bees; it helps secure the successful pollination of food crops.