Saving the Bees with Big Data and RFID Tags

It is estimated that the annual global crop pollination by bees is worth a staggering £138bn, but bee numbers are in decline. Data analysis is being used to discover why, but how do you track something as small as a bee?

Back in 2013, Time Magazine ran a cover story that imagined a ‘world without bees’ and the mysterious decline of honeybee populations across the globe deservedly took centre stage. Bees are a vitally important part of our ecosystem, responsible for pollinating many of the plants and crops we rely on to live. What was killing them? More importantly, what could we do to fix the problem? 

Big Data has been instrumental in determining the answers to both questions.

Total US managed bee colony losses peaked in 2012-13.

A recent field trial, conducted by the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, tested the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin and thiamethoxam) on bees at 33 oilseed rape sites across the UK, Germany and Hungary. Both were found to be harmful.[1]

Friends of the Earth, meanwhile, launched the Great British Bee Count this year[2], encouraging smartphone owners to track bee numbers using an app.

There are over 270 species of bee in Great Britain, but we face losing 13% of them.

Over 16,000 people took part in the campaign, which ran from May to June 2017. Together, they documented over 320,000 bees, data that will be added to the vast National Biodiversity Network Atlas, the UK’s largest repository of biodiversity information. Analysing the data will enable researchers to evaluate changes in the distribution of bees in the UK.

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Researchers have gathered raw data in some more innovative ways too. In 2016, Intel was involved in an ambitious project to track and gather data from individual bees. In an experiment run by Professor Paulo de Souza, science leader at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, nearly 10,000 Tasmanian bees were fitted with RFID ‘backpacks’, no bigger than a grain of rice.

An analysis of the surveys and studies points to the cause of bee decline as a mix of habitat loss, climate change, toxic pesticides and disease

The RFID chips tracked the bees and their behaviour, while an Intel Edison board installed inside the hive gathered a wealth of other valuable data, including: temperature, humidity, water pollution, wind velocity, even the rate and volume of honey production.

Sensors attached to bees were able to track their daily behaviour.

“Data captured by the Edison and RFID tags help us better understand why honey bees are on the decline,” Professor Paulo de Souza explained [3]. “[They] provide valuable information to beekeepers, primary producers, industry groups and governments on how best to protect the honey bee population.”

The good news is that, thanks to projects like these, scientists now have access to a huge array of data. An analysis of the surveys and studies points to the cause of bee decline as a mix of habitat loss, climate change, toxic pesticides and disease. It highlights the need for urgent action to halt the losses bee populations have already suffered.

It’s not just toxic chemicals killing our bees, but a combination of factors.

There’s some evidence that this is already happening. According to the Bee Informed Partnership [4] in the US, “beekeepers lost 33.2% of their colonies between April 2016 and March 2017. This is the second lowest rate of annual colony loss recorded over the last seven years.” A 33.2% loss is still disappointingly high, but considering that the April 2015-March 2016 figure was 44.1%, it’s a definite improvement.

The natural world is a complex interplay of delicate systems that we barely understand. But with enough raw data, powerful cloud computing solutions can help scientists find patterns in the noise, revealing new insights and actionable information. It’s another example of how modern technology can help tackle the world’s biggest (and its smallest) problems.

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