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Bee backpacks could bring sweet success

Ryan Warren’s hand is covered in bees.

Fortunately they are new adults that emerged from their combs yesterday and are still too young to sting or fly.

It’s the perfect time to attach tiny identification tags, which are less than 2.5 millimetres in size, to their backs using tweezers and a glue.

One down, 999 to go. This painstaking practical work is part of Ryan’s fascinating research project undertaken as part of his PhD at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) at the University of Tasmania.

The alumnus has developed a high-tech tracking system that will give fruit growers and beekeepers a unique insight into the behaviour of the world’s most important pollinators, the humble honeybee.

He attaches the tags, known as Radio Frequency Identification, to the backs of the day-old bees and puts them back in the hive.

“I have designed a scanner system, which is mounted to the hive’s entrance,” Ryan said.

“It has antennas that can detect the tags, so I know every time a bee moves in and out of the hive, and from that we can tell how long they have been foraging, or if they fail to return to the hive.

It almost acts like a security system in a shop, or like an e-TAG that records vehicle movements on a tollway.

“Being able to monitor the movement of the bees with precision means he can gather incredibly rich datasets that could help improve hive health and enhance pollination, a major coup for the agricultural industry.

“I’m trying to improve pollination and bee health in covered cropping systems, which includes bird netting, rain covers and polytunnels. They protect crops from hail, rain and birds, but there is a concern that they may be bad for the bees because they can influence navigation, climate and pesticide exposures.”

Ryan, who graduated from a Bachelor of Agricultural Science with Honours in 2017, has been working in cherry and carrot crops in southern Tasmania, using his high-tech tracking system to observe the normal pollination period.

His project will provide valuable evidence that will have wide-ranging benefits for horticulturalists, fruit growers and apiarists alike.

“Beekeepers are worried about the health of their bees, but currently we don’t have any good baseline evidence about the impact of covered cropping systems on the insects,” he said.

“I’m looking at the foraging activity, analysing the pollen they bring back, to make sure they are pollinating the right crop, and I also detect any spray events that may harm the bees.

“My tracking system could also be used by fruit producers to tell them exactly when the bees start and stop flying, so chemicals could be sprayed when they know they are back in the hive.”

Ryan works under the tutelage of Associate Professor Geoff Allen, Dr Stephen Quarrell and Associate Professor Alistair Gracie. His research is funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia.

The results of his project will not be known for at least another year, when he hopes to complete his PhD, but the insights he is gleaning have already received national recognition.

In 2018, he won an Ag Institute Australia National Student Award for this work. He also received the Bruce Wall Scholarship in 2014.

This article featured in the 2020 edition of the University of Tasmania Alumni magazine. You can read more stories here.

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Published on: 03 Mar 2021 3:59pm