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Social Innovation

Bee the future: how wearable technology is helping to save honeybees

What comes to mind when you think of bees? Honey making machines, or perhaps dangerous pests with painful stings? What most may not think of is how crucial bees are to society, their vitality expanding far beyond pollinating pretty flowers and producing tasty honey.

To put it briefly, bees are very important.

They are a huge reason why you can order avocado toast at brunch on Saturdays and snack on strawberries while soaking up the summer sun.

In fact, honeybees are essential for the pollination of about one third of the food we eat, including fruit, vegetables, oils, seeds and nuts. They also pollinate clover and alfalfa, the stuff that cattle eat, so meat lovers and cheese enthusiasts should also appreciate the value of Mother Nature’s bees.

Sadly, global bee populations have been decreasing rapidly in the past decade for unknown reasons, which has come to be known as the Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder. As a result, leading companies and research organizations have joined together to save the bees by discovering ways that existing technology can be transformed and utilized to solve this global issue,

Luckily, honeybees have continued to thrive in Australia, largely due to absence of the varroa mite, a parasite that breeds in honeybee colonies and attacks them in most other regions of the world. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) of Australia has become the leading institution and founding member of the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health – an international collaborative effort by researchers, beekeepers, farmers and technology companies to better understand why there is a substantial threat to the bee population in order to identify solutions to combat Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder.

CSIRO and its partners have turned to the idea of wearable technology for this crucial step of information gathering.  They have selected an RFID tag from Hitachi Chemicals, a 2.5mm X 2.5mm high-tech micro-sensor that is carefully and safely glued onto thousands of bees by hand. The sensor allows researchers to track the bees’ movements and analyse various environmental stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, and water contamination in order to pinpoint which ones affect the bees’ ability to pollinate and lead to bee deaths en masse. Think of it as a Fitbit for bees, but instead of tracking steps, it tracks where the bee is, its health and how its productivity changes due to the weather.

To help turn all this data into actual programs to the save the bees, CSIRO works with Intel to load the data from Hitachi’s sensors into the cloud where the members of the Global Initiative for Honeybee Health can access it and discuss potential solutions.

So, the good news here is that Hitachi and partners such as Intel and CSIRO have identified ways to use existing technology for the greater good. The sharing of data and collective wisdom by industry experts is fundamental to help bees regain healthy populations and continue to pollinate humanity’s global food supply. Oh, and so that we can enjoy avocado toast at brunch or strawberries on the beach. Calling all foodies to root for the bees!