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Oregon State will track bees with wireless sensors

CORVALLIS — Oregon State University will design miniature wireless sensors to attach to bumblebees that will provide real-time data on their intriguing behavior.

Many aspects of bumblebees' daily conduct are unknown because of their small size, rapid flight speeds, and hidden underground nests. OSU plans to build sensors that will reveal how these native pollinators search for pollen, nectar and nesting sites – information that will help researchers better understand how these insects assist in the production of crops that depend on pollination to produce fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, tomatoes and dozens of other staples of the Pacific Northwest agricultural economy.

Given recent losses of European honeybees to diseases, mites and colony collapse disorder, bumblebees are becoming increasingly important as agricultural pollinators, said Sujaya Rao, an entomologist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Lack of pollination is a risk to human food production,” said Rao, an expert on native bees. “With our sensors, we are searching for answers to basic questions, such as: Do all members of one colony go to pollinate the same field together? Do bumblebees communicate in the colony where food is located? Are bumblebees loyal as a group?"

"The more we can learn about bumblebees' customs of foraging, pollination and communication,” she added, “the better we can promote horticultural habitats that are friendly to bees in agricultural settings."

Landscaping tactics, such as planting flowers and hedgerows near crops, are believed to promote the presence and population of bumblebees, as well as increase yields.

This multidisciplinary design project will unite Rao with researchers in OSU's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The three-year collaboration begins Oct. 1 and will be supported by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

OSU engineers will test small, lightweight electronic sensors that avoid affecting the bees' natural flight movements. At the same time, researchers will test how to best mount the sensors on the pollinators – likely on the thorax or abdomen.

Each sensor will consist of integrated circuits that broadcast wireless signals about the bee's location and movement. The sensors will be powered by wireless energy transfer instead of batteries, further reducing weight and size.

"New technologies allow us to build sensors with extremely small dimensions," said Arun Natarajan, principal investigator in OSU's High-Speed Integrated Circuits Lab and an assistant professor in EECS. "The concept of placing wireless sensors on insects is a relatively unexplored area, and we're hopeful that our research can have vast applications in the future.”

Once designed and built, OSU researchers first plan to use the sensors to study the six bumblebee species of the Willamette Valley, which vary in size, flight patterns and seasonal activity. These native bees also differ from bumblebees found in eastern Oregon, the East Coast and Europe.

Researchers also hope their sensor designs could be used for tracking other small organisms, such as invasive pests.

Patrick Chiang, an OSU engineering professor and an expert in low-power circuits, will assist in designing the sensors.

"This collaboration is truly unique - engineers and entomologists talk different languages and rarely cross paths," said Rao. "To be working with engineers for an agricultural research project is part of what makes this effort so exciting and distinct."

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