Page last updated at 09:22 GMT, Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Tiny tags track brainy bumblebees

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Bumblebee (Cheryl Power/SPL)

In a laboratory in the heart of the east end of London, an unmistakeable buzz fills the air.

The small room is packed with bumblebees - hundreds upon hundreds of them going about their business in small wooden hives.

Despite their scientific setting, the insects look just the same as bumblebees found in the wild, apart from one small - really small - difference.

"Bumblebees have a relatively small brain... but they can achieve rather impressive feats of learning and memory
Dr Nigel Raine

Most are adorned with minuscule silver tags, so tiny that at first they are hard to see. But every so often, as they catch the laboratory lights, they glint and sparkle, standing out from the bees' fuzzy bodies.

These tiny accessories are Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags - the same technology used to track stock in warehouses or supermarkets or employed for transport systems such as the Oyster Card payment scheme used on the London Underground.

They have been fitted to the bees by scientists at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), who want to keep track of the animals' whereabouts so as to better understand these brainy bugs.

Tagged bee (Dr Josef Timar)
The tiny RFID tag can be just seen above the bee's wings

Biologist Nigel Raine said: "Bumblebees have a relatively small brain - they have about 950,000 brain cells, humans have 100 billion - but they can achieve rather impressive feats of learning and memory given what they have got."

Recent research has revealed that bees are able to recognise individual human faces, which, according to Dr Raine, is not that surprising given the daily challenges they face whilst foraging.

He explained: "When you think about your average park or meadow there might be dozens of species of flowers which are all different in terms of colour and shape and scent, and they are all differing in the rewards they are providing.

"Ultimately, the bees' job is to go and find the best rewards from these flowers and they have to be flexible and learn and remember information, all the while making and breaking associations. This is all really quite complicated."

Their navigational skills are impressive, too.

"These tiny animals leave their nests, fly back and forth between flowers, then they are somehow able to add all of these vectors together and fly back to their nest in a straight line," said Dr Raine.

Artificial flowers

The QMUL team, led by Professor Lars Chittka, is now using RFID tags to better explore these feats of memory.

The lab is abuzz with bees

"These tags allow us to collect data from the bees without disturbing them and they help us to monitor a lot of bees simultaneously," Dr Raine told the BBC News website.

"Before we had them, we would have to stop the bee, record which bee it was, weigh it, then put it back to continue its business."

The RFID devices, which are incredibly small so they do not affect behaviour, store information about the individual bees (the researchers are studying Bombus terrestris , one of 16 species of true bumblebee).

Bee being tagged
The tags are attached to enable the team to monitor bee foraging

Each time the bees pass by an RFID reader, the reader records and saves information about the individual bee, where it is and when it is there.

The scientist said: "As well as placing readers at the entrances of the hives to see who is going in and out of them, we are starting to use the RFID readers on artificial flowers - feeding stations that function like a flower - so we can measure who is visiting them and when."

Aiding conservation

In the wild, bees will often visit flowers in a sequence that they repeat time and time again.

"This makes sense biologically," explained Dr Raine. "If you take the nectar out of the flowers, they will begin to refill, so you do not want to visit that flower again until it is as full up as possible."

But what is really clever, he adds, is that the bees will work out shortcuts so that they can create the shortest, most efficient journey possible.

"We are really interested to see how they form these routes - we call them "traplines" - and we are using RFID technology to help us to understand how the bees are performing these feats of spatial learning."

Bumblebees (Cheryl Power/SPL)
Bees solve complex problems while foraging

The results of the study could lead to some unusual future applications.

Dr Raine said: "There are a number of problems in computer science, logistical problems to do with how you move through networks and how you go the shortest distance between various points.

"We are hoping the RFID tags will help us to find out how bees, with their small brains, can find optimal or near optimal solutions to finding the shortest routes between flowers.

"And by finding out how they are doing this, we are hoping it could lead to some simple rules of thumb to solving similar network problems in computing."

But computer science is not the only application of the RFID work.

Bees around Europe have suffered a huge drop in numbers in recent years: three species in the UK have recently become extinct; another eight are in serious decline.

Scientists believe that habitat degradation around their nesting and foraging sites could be to blame.

Dr Raine said: "In terms of biodiversity, bumblebees are hugely important pollinators, yet most species are becoming increasingly rare.

"Understanding the differences in how they actually forage is very important for aiding conservation."

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