Bee health in CSIRO research spotlight

HARD WORKER: A honey bee, tagged with a micro sensor "backpack" for CSIRO's research into bee health. Picture: CSIRO
HARD WORKER: A honey bee, tagged with a micro sensor "backpack" for CSIRO's research into bee health. Picture: CSIRO

They may be small and seemingly inconsequential, but the soldiers of the sky are vitally important to the world as we know it.

The symbiotic relation between bees and flowers is so finely tuned, it seems the perfect evolutionary success story. 

But these little buzzing workers face a grim future, struggling to thrive against an wave of harmful challenges that threaten their existence. 

Tasmania’s bees are playing a crucial role in understanding the health of bees worldwide. 

The CSIRO has been conducting a global collaborative project to better understand the stressors on bees and what leads to the decline of bee populations, and one of their research stations is down on the Apple Isle. 

“Doing the research in Tasmania has been quite interesting because bees here are very healthy, the environment they have is a pristine environment and definitely bees are benefiting from that,” CSIRO Data 61 science leader Paulo de Souza said

“Having that is so important because we start then comparing how healthy bees will behave and how bees that are in environments that are not that healthy will try to survive – so we have a very nice baseline.”

While Tasmania may boast healthy bees, the global situation is increasingly serious. Just this week seven species of bee in the United States were listed as endangered. 

The growing extinction of bees is causing global consternation, and threatens food security into the future. 

“Let’s try to picture this, over the last 50 years, five decades, the number of bees are declining around the world and we don’t understand why … if you look to the future in the next three decades we need to produce about 60 per cent more food than we produce today if we are to feed the population,” de Souza said. 

“It is just a matter of time when pollinators won’t be able to pollinate the plants that we need to have food.”

It is just a matter of time when pollinators won’t be able to pollinate the plants that we need to have food.

Paulo de Souza

The little buzzing critters face an onslaught of stressors from a range of sources.

“The key point of the decline of pollinators around the world is really associated to the large number of stress factors.

“We have pests, pathogens, parasites, extreme weather events like heatwaves, cold fronts, hurricanes, cyclones becoming more frequent, we have a number of chemicals used in agriculture … degradation of natural habitat, air pollution, water contamination and I could keep going,” de Souza said. 

Use of insecticides and pesticides has been credited to mass bee extinctions, entire colonies have collapsed in Europe and Northern America and the varroa destructor mite is as serious as it’s name implies. 

“The varroa mite has been a major cause of disruptive management of hives from everywhere in the world ... When the mite arrived in the U.K. there was a huge loss in beekeeping industry,” De Souza said. 

The parasite can cause deformity and crippling, impaired flight and reduced lifespan. It can also transmit viruses. 

Research has shown the impact of the mite on Australian, and Tasmanian, bee populations would be devastating and apiarists keep a keen and concerned eye on their hives to ensure they remain free of the pest.

“It would be very bad for us for a few reasons,” Tasmanian Beekeepers Association president Lindsay Bourke said. 

In recent years, the parasite has made its way to New Zealand, making Australian beekeepers nervous it could soon hit our hives. Since the mite arrived in New Zealand, wild honey bee populations have plummeted to 10 per cent of their original size. 

It is widely accepted it is not a matter of if the varroa arrives in Australia, but when. 

Research such as that by CSIRO are vital in determining how best to cope with the arrival of such stressors. 

De Souza likens it to people being able to take a trip to the doctor. 

“We can predict how much the life of humans would be reduced by exposure to pollutants or by smoking or by unhealthy habits, we have done the same with bees,” he said.

“We are able to predict how long the bees will live depending on exposure to some of those stressors.”

The way the research works is to track the activity of individual bees via a sensor, or ‘backpack’, on the bees back. 

The sensor notes the time and individual reference number of each individual bee as they enter and leave the hive. 

“Just like an e-tag in a car or anybody going in and out of a company that uses a swiper card to get access, it keeps a record of that particular bee … and lets us know how frequently the bees are flying, the behaviour of these going out for foraging, coming back, staying by the entrance of the hive and how all those behaviours will change once exposed to stressors,” de Souza said.

The University of Tasmania has been participating in the research, and students Allanna Russell and Mengyong Lim participated in tagging the bees over summer. 

“What we pretty much do is we open up the hive and pin down the bees with a pair of tweezers. We’ll pin one down then pick up a tiny little microchip with a second pair of tweezers, dip it in a bit of glue and stick it on its back. It’s really simple, you just go along pinning them down and gluing a little microchip on their back,” Ms Russell said. 

The data that has been  gathered and analysed so far is already proving valuable. 

There is a growing understanding of how weather affects bee behaviour, which is better allowing beekeepers to plan and manage hives based on weather forecasts. 

Ultimately our future is intricately linked to the fortunes of the little black and yellow insects we rely on so much, even if we rarely pause to offer them a thought.