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OSU scientists to track bees like researchers track wolves, other species

by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - OSU researchers will fit bumblebees with tiny transmitters, to learn clues about why they are disappearing. With scientists wondering how to fully explain the massive loss of honeybees due to disease, mites and colony collapse disorder, researchers at Oregon State University have decided to rig miniature wireless sensors to bumblebees to track their movement and provide more data on their behavior.

"Lack of pollination is a risk to human food production,” says Sujaya Rao, an entomologist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. “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 food is located? Are bumblebees loyal as a group?"

The three-year project, funded by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will include Rao and researchers from OSU’s School of Electric Engineering and Computer Science.

OSU engineers will test small, lightweight electronic sensors that, hopefully, avoid affecting the bees' natural flight movements. The sensors will mounted on the bees’ thorax or abdomen.

Each sensor will consist of integrated circuits that broadcast wireless signals about the bee's location and movement. The sensors will be powered by wireless energy transfer instead of batteries, further reducing weight and size.

"New technologies allow us to build sensors with extremely small dimensions," says Arun Natarajan, principal investigator in OSU's High-Speed Integrated Circuits Lab and an assistant professor in the computer science department. "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.”

Once designed and built, OSU researchers plan to use the sensors to study the six bumblebee species of the Willamette Valley, which vary in size, flight patterns and seasonal activity. Such native bumblebees differ from species found in eastern Oregon, the East Coast and Europe.

Ultimately, researchers hope the sensors can be used to track other small species, such as invasive pests.

Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.