Bee populations around the world are declining rapidly. And two third year Agricultural Science and Science students have been contributing to a major international research project to find out why. 

MengYong Lim, 20, and Allanna Russell, 20, have been helping researchers from the University’s Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture and the CSIRO tag honey bees with tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. 

The tags monitor the bees’ movements in and out of the hive, allowing the researchers to build a picture of what a healthy hive looks like.

MengYong and Allanna were both awarded Dean’s Summer Research Scholarships, allowing them to experience what it’s like conducting academic research.

Image courtesy of CSIRO.

MengYong said it was exciting to contribute to the bee project.

“I really enjoyed the whole process and I learned a lot.

“I like insects and microbiology, so I approached lecturers within those areas. The bee project appealed to me a lot at that time.

“I got a little taster of what Honours year would be like, so that was fun.

How do you tag a tiny bee?

After tagging hundreds of bees, MengYong and Allanna are bee-tagging experts. 

There’s two different ways to tag bees.

“At the apiaries, in a bee suit, you pull out frames where the honey bees are buzzing around. You have two pairs of tweezers and usually you aim for the bees that have their head inside the comb.

As the thorax is exposed, you can gently take your tweezers and stick on the RFID tag with superglue. You give it a few seconds to dry and it doesn’t affect the bee’s flying. You want to make sure it can go about its business normally, Meng said.

Image courtesy of CSIRO.

Another method is attaching the tags to newly hatched bees.

“At the later stage of the project we took frames and put them into an incubator. There is a certain temperature that suits them. Bees hatch overnight and then emerge. Because they’ve just hatched they are soft and their exoskeletons haven’t hardened yet. They can’t fly or sting you and you can gently stick it on.”

Allanna said the project as a whole was about tracking the comings and goings of bees to measure what the movements of a healthy hive should look like.

The work is best done in Australia because we are free of the Varroa mite that is contributing to bee declines overseas.

“In Australia we don’t have the mite so we can see what a completely healthy hive looks like,” she said. 

Bees don’t travel very far, maybe five kilometres. But if a single bee with the mite found its way to a hive, the mite would be here. It’s a massive deal and Australia has to be really careful.

About MengYong:

MengYong is originally from Malaysia and came to the University in 2014 to study his degree in Agricultural Science. His parents encouraged him to study abroad to experience a new place and a different culture.  

“I like Tassie a lot, especially the environment here, it’s very scenic. I love zoology and plant science, so it seems to make more sense coming here compared to the big cities. Don’t get me wrong, I still like big cities, but Tassie is so different from where I came from it just draws me in.

When I was really young, I used to watch a lot of documentaries with my parents. I am a big fan of David Attenborough, so that fuelled my interest in wildlife.

MengYong received a scholarship that supports 25 per cent of his study fee, which he says “helps a lot.”

“I was really worried about communication, but it’s not as hard as it seems. Most people here are just polite and friendly.”

MengYong is unsure exactly what his future holds, but he said it could see him working with insects again.

“It will depend but I wouldn’t say no to being an entomologist.”

About Allanna:

Allanna is in the final year of her Bachelor of Science, majoring in Zoology. She loves learning about insects. 

Lots of people are interested in mammals. But insects make up around 80 per cent of all species. There’s so many of them. They pretty much rule the world.

“I’m interested in physiology, which is why bugs are fantastic. They’re tiny and so different to everything else. Their physiology is fantastic - they breathe through just having holes in their sides,” she said.

“Most insects are quite solitary. But bees have a well-defined class system and jobs. That’s how they’re able to work so effectively.

“No-one likes bugs really - they should, bugs are fantastic. Bees particularly are really important. If I was to do Honours I’d definitely focus on insects."

For more information on the CSIRO project, click here.