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Page last updated at 03:36 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 04:36 UK
Honeybees: 3D images reveal life inside a live hive
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

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In the 3D images the bees appear as red dots (courtesy of M. Greco)

Scientists have devised a new way to peer into the inner workings of a live honeybee colony, without disturbing the insects inside.

The technique, known as Diagnostic Radioentomology (DR), scans a beehive, taking a series of 3D images.

This reveals in real-time how many bees are inside, where they are, and gives clues as to what they are doing.

Such information could help scientists understand what is causing bee numbers around the world to decline steeply.

Follow the queen

The new technique is being developed by entomologist Mark Greco and his colleagues at the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern, Switzerland and scientists at the University of Bath led by Professor Cathryn Mitchell and Dr Manuchehr Soleimani.

The researchers used an imaging technology called X-ray computerised tomography to scan a live beehive.

This produced a series of coloured 3D images, which over time could be used to record in detail what goes on inside.

Honeybees
How do you watch, but not disturb?

Preliminary studies have revealed that DR can be used to identify individual bees within the colony, and even keep track of the movements of the queen bee, including her location and where in the colony she prefers to spend the most time.

Crucially, "the approach is non-invasive and does not modify their normal behaviour," Mr Greco told the BBC.

"We can accurately assess the number of bees and where they are at the time of scanning."

New scans can be performed every 90 seconds.

The researchers are working to improve the DR technique, to increase the quality of the images and more accurately measure the bee population and the volumes of pollen, wax and honey within a hive.

MORE ABOUT BEES

The team at the University of Bath are also working on producing new computer models that will be able to better evaluate when levels of pests or pathogens within a hive have reached critical levels.

"Because the method is extremely accurate, we will be looking for critical thresholds of pathogen and parasite loads and loss of food resources from which bee populations can not recover," explained Mr Greco, who is completing his PhD thesis.

"[We will also be investigating] how pathogens such as mites, viruses, bacteria and fungi might interact, both among themselves, and with environmental pressures or stressors, to produce colony declines or collapses."

The team also hopes the new imaging technique may indicate what is reducing the numbers of other solitary bee species.

A 3D image of an empty hive
A 3D image of an empty hive

"Many solitary bees forage on the same floral resources to those of honeybees, some also suffer from the same pathogens, such as fungal infestations in their nests."

Mr Greco and his colleagues at the University of Bath have already passed the first hurdle in their bid to secure further funding for their imaging technique from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which together with the British government is spending £10 million to investigate why bee numbers are falling.



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