Skip to main content
Move the World.
bee tracking

Lead Image © Michael Smith

Bee tracking is a difficult proposition. Current methods are onerously difficult, expensive, and only work on the heftiest and strongest of bees. Little bees just can't haul much, besides nectar and their own weight.

To track bees with more ease — and less cash — researchers at the University of Sheffield and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust turned to some sartorial science: they made high visibility, reflective bee tracking "vests."

bee tracking

A buff tailed bumblebee wearing its tag, made of the same retroreflective material cyclists use. Credit: Michael Smith

"Finding the bee itself is difficult, and finding wild bee nests in the first place is massively difficult and time-consuming, especially for rarer or less-known species," Michael Smith, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield and the study's lead author, said in a release

"This tool hopefully will make finding them far easier, making these studies a practical approach." 

Bee tracking is crucial to understanding their ecological behavior, including insights into their foraging behavior, how they navigate their environment, and where they prefer to nest. 

Bees are, of course, crucial pollinators as they flit from flower to flower, a cornerstone of agricultural systems, and a direct producer of honey, too. 

Only larger bees can bear the current radio tags, leaving the lives of smaller bee species something of a mystery. Using the same material as in a reflective cycling vest, the researchers created retroreflective tags. These bounce light back to the source, creating little points of light.

A tracking system — built from off the shelf components — can then use those points of light to track the bee's actions in real-time. Using an electrically timed shutter, the tracking system uses a flash to bounce off the bee tracking tags; the shutter's speed allows for a short exposure, ensuring the flash — not the sun — illuminates the scene.

That information is then fed into a machine learning algorithm, trained to recognize these dots of light from false positives, creating a real-time picture of just what the bees are up to.

bee tracking

Combining a machine learning algorithm, a flash, and an electric shutter, the tracking device can keep tabs on the bees by spotting flashes of light reflected from their tags. Credit: Michael Smith

In tests, the high visibility bee tracking system was able to successfully keep tabs on seven different species, including smaller honeybees and leafcutters — over 100 individual bees in total. The tracking system could track the bees across two field sites from up to 40 meters away. 

The tags stayed in place after a week, and, since no marked behavior differences arose from bees with tags as opposed to those without, the tags may be non-intrusive enough for an entire lifespan of bee tracking. 

The tracking system was able to successfully keep tabs on seven different species — over 100 individual bees in total.

To get the vests on, the bees were snagged with an insect net before being put in a special pot used by beekeepers to mark queens. Made sluggish with cold air, they applied the tags noninvasively. 

The bee tracking system can still be refined; the system is limited to that 40-meter range, and only then what's in its line of sight. Also, all of the flashes look the same to the algorithm, making human follow-up necessary to distinguish which type of bee is being spotted.

The team intends to train the algorithm on multi-color tags to help distinguish species and populations. And since the whole thing is still more cost-effective than radio tags, they hope they can scale it up to automated monitoring. 

 "Being able to track bees from easy-to-find foraging sites back to the hard-to-find nest gives us the chance to find more nests, and nests much earlier in the life cycle," Richard Comfort, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's science manager, said in the release. 

"That means that it's much easier to establish nest site requirements, which can be taken into account when doing conservation work".

Up Next

Uprising
Robot Bees Could One Day Save Your Life
robot bees
Uprising
Robot Bees Could One Day Save Your Life
For the first time, a microbot powered by soft actuators has achieved controlled flight.

For the first time, a microbot powered by soft actuators has achieved controlled flight.

Veterans
Amputee Veterans Need to Game, So This Engineer Builds New Controllers from Scratch
adaptive controllers
Veterans
Amputee Veterans Need to Game, So This Engineer Builds New Controllers from Scratch
Inspired by his visits to Walter Reed Medical Center, engineer Ken Jones makes adaptive controllers to keep veterans gaming.

Inspired by his visits to Walter Reed Medical Center, engineer Ken Jones makes adaptive controllers to keep veterans gaming.

Volcanoes
Dropping Drones into Volcanoes Can Help Us Predict Eruptions
predict volcanic eruptions
Volcanoes
Dropping Drones into Volcanoes Can Help Us Predict Eruptions
The ratio of sulphur to carbon dioxide being released can be an indicator of imminent volcanic eruptions. Researchers are using drones to gather that data.

The ratio of sulphur to carbon dioxide being released can be an indicator of imminent volcanic eruptions. Researchers are using drones to gather that data.

Insects
The "Iron Man" of Beetles Could Inspire Super-Durable Cars and Planes
Diabolical Ironclad Beetle
Insects
The "Iron Man" of Beetles Could Inspire Super-Durable Cars and Planes
The diabolical ironclad beetle could be the next big thing in biomimicry, inspiring the design of extra-durable planes, cars, and more.

The diabolical ironclad beetle could be the next big thing in biomimicry, inspiring the design of extra-durable planes, cars, and more.

The Future Explored
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
The Future Explored
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
Solar geoengineering would cool global temperatures — is it worth it?

Solar geoengineering would cool global temperatures — is it worth it?

Climate Change
Raising Pacific Islands to Save Them From High Sea Levels
sea level rise
Climate Change
Raising Pacific Islands to Save Them From High Sea Levels
The president of Kiribati announced a new plan to fight against sea level rise: raise the islands.

The president of Kiribati announced a new plan to fight against sea level rise: raise the islands.

Hacking for Good
White Hat Hackers are Defending Hospitals From Rising Cyber Attacks
cyber attacks
Hacking for Good
White Hat Hackers are Defending Hospitals From Rising Cyber Attacks
Criminals are exploiting COVID-19 to launch cyber attacks. These volunteers have grouped together to fight back.

Criminals are exploiting COVID-19 to launch cyber attacks. These volunteers have grouped together to fight back.

Citizen Scientists
NASA Wants YOU to Help Track Landslides
NASA Wants YOU to Help Track Landslides
Citizen Scientists
NASA Wants YOU to Help Track Landslides
NASA is enlisting citizen scientists to collect important data on recent landslides, in an effort to improve prediction models and assist in disaster prevention.

NASA is enlisting citizen scientists to collect important data on recent landslides, in an effort to improve prediction models and assist in disaster prevention.

Superhuman
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
Watch Now
Superhuman
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
The incredible movement of shared designs and tech that’s making prosthetics better and cheaper for everyone.
Watch Now

Powered by 3D printer technology, people are making prosthetics at a fraction of the cost. Watch this episode of “Superhuman” for the story of how e-NABLE, an online network of volunteers, has created 3,000 bionic hands for people in need (mostly kids) across 90 countries.