A swarm of bees wearing tiny backpacks are flying around Ballarat in the name of science, thanks to a unique partnership between Ballarat Tech School, CSIRO and Ballarat apiarists.
The bees are each fitted with a high-tech micro-sensor (a backpack) which records the movements of individual bees and their entry and exit in to the hive.
Students from various Ballarat secondary colleges who have signed up to the Ballarat Tech School Bees with Backpacks program will help analyse the data and feed it in to a global project to learn more about bee behaviour.
"Students will be analysing and working with the data long-term to be able to track bees over time and see how much activity they do, how bees are affected by weather, and look at environmental factors surrounding that activity," said Ballarat Tech School associate director Sofia Fiusco.
The program is a joint project with CSIRO's Data61, the data and digital specialist arm of the national science agency, and aims to give students hands-on experience working with scientists who have pioneered the backpack tracking technology to better understand honey bee behaviour, the factors causing their decline and help secure their future.
Bees are vital to world food production, providing pollination for about 75 per cent of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat and one-third of all food, but bee numbers are falling due to range of factors including intensive agriculture, bee mites and pathogens, climate change, pesticides and the reduction of natural habitats.
A hive belonging to Backyard Beekeeping Ballarat has been fitted with the tracking technology and its bees all sport the backpacks, a 2.5mm wide sensor about the size of a match head, which is manually attached to the bees using super glue.
The sensors have no impact on the bees movement.
Since the Bees with Backpacks project began in 2014, more than half a million bees have been tagged around the world including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the US.
Ms Fiusco said the project also introduced students to food science, the nutritional and health properties of honey, environmental change and how to encourage bees to pollinate and survive.
"Students really love the fact that bees are a little bit of unknown species. We understand the impact of what bees do in the environment which is what's really bit for students, and they really engage with the goal of unpacking the data from the bee backpacks," she said.
The project was also an opportunity to see how technology can interact with the natural environment, and how that data can inform decision-making and track changes.
Geelong Tech School is also taking part in the Bees with Backpacks project, which will give groups of students the chance to compare bee behaviour between the two cities.
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"We are excited to be working with students and teachers on an internationally significant research project that will help the beekeeping industry secure the future of our world's food and the health of our ecosystems," said CSIRO's Data61 Science Leader Professor Paulo de Souza.
"The project will be a fantastic way to introduce students to the scientific method and get them excited about future careers in STEM."
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