The big, big data of bees

Helen Clark

Helen Clark Freelance journalist

Published

We've had an internet of things for a decade and pretty soon we'll have a big data set of everything, too. Combine those with insects and you get a particularly ambitious and impressive Australian CSIRO-led global project essentially studying the big data of bees. Why? Because they continue to die in record numbers and we still don't know why.

A mass bee die-off threatens food security and would drive up the costs of many foods considered staples today. The stressors on bee populations across the world are complicated and the CSRIO project aims to untangle them by studying populations en masse, rather than the small-scale experiments largely done up to this point.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

The situation in Australia differs from the majority of the world given it does not yet suffer from the colony collapse disorder or destructive pests such as the Varroa mite hurting other bee populations. The country is relatively well insulated - but especially vulnerable should those things change.

Colony collapse is not the extinction of an entire hive but the death or disappearance of all its adult workers. Immature bees or a queen may be left behind. But that's it: adults just go. It is an issue globally and not one properly understood.

Explanations for colony collapse range from the parasitic Varroa mite, which can kill bees outright and make them far more susceptible to some diseases, to pesticides containing neonicotinoids, climate change and inclement weather or even electromagnetic radiation.

That the potential demise of bees is of global importance was evident when the White Housereleases press releases outlining its plans to study and combat the phenomenon.

“Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $US15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year," the release said. “And helps ensure our diets include ample fruits, nuts, and vegetables."

There have been three Parliamentary Inquiries into bee health in Australia, where research suggests bee pollination is worth up to $A6 billion to the economy.

Crops at stake

Both wild and domestic honeybee hives can suffer colony collapse, threatening food security as they do the brunt of pollination of agricultural crops.

Without this pollination, much of which is still from wild hives, much of the world's agricultural output would stop. Whilst starchy foods and grains are pollinated by the wind, the majority of fruit and vegetable crops would suffer.

A CSIRO paper about the problem in the US notes the peak number of hives dropped from 5.9 million managed hives in 1947 down steadily "due to numerous factors including the increased use of pesticides and newly introduced pests and diseases, which led to an estimated hive population of 4.5 million in 1980".

It was not until early this century the decline became a steeper slide with a decline of 30 per cent “most years". Ten per cent loss was the previous standard, before the dreaded Varroa mite was introduced to the US.

The Global Initiative for Honeybee Health (GIFF) was conceived to address worldwide concerns over honeybee health and issues such as colony collapse in a larger way than has been done before.

Dr Paulo de Souza, a physicist with the CSIRO whose specialisation is miniaturisations, toldBlueNotes the work in some ways is comparable to the human genome project or climate change in its scope.

A data buzz

The best and first question here should be, exactly how does one get big data sets from bees? The answer is from microchips, attached (very easily as it turns out) to the bee's back. The chips transmit information about movements and flight patterns, such as where the bee goes and how many trips it might make each day.

All technology and data protocols are standardised which means information from across the world can be shared, aggregated or fed into computers for varied modelling and analysis.

The microchips, or 'black boxes', record a bee's movements for an important reason; bees tend to change their behaviour when stressed and discovering why may well put scientists on the road to the reasons behind colony collapse. It is most likely a compound cause, that is, several factors possibly combined in different ways.

“It's very likely to be a combination (of factors killing bees worldwide)," de Souza says. “As a single research group no one can discover this."

The project will measure all sorts of factors from pesticides to other insects and inclement weather, all considered stressors that may play a large part in the dying off of hives. The sheer amount of information - daily comings and goings of what will ultimately be one million busy bees - means the analytics side will be complex.

The microchips send information to a tiny computer attached to the hive which then sends it on to a single processor. From here all data can be managed by the CSIRO out of Hobart, on the southern Australian island of Tasmania.

“This is a nice example of the 'internet of things'," DeSouza says.

One of the problems studies have run in to over time is they tend to be localised and very specific, such as the effect of a certain measure of one kind of pesticide upon one hive over a certain period of time. Such small-scale experiments are unlikely to solve the complex global problem.

Through this global initiative, de Souza hopes to be able to put a series of pieces together to “determine which pieces of the puzzle are still missing (after this) then design solutions for the problem."

A million little flyers

Currently 50,000 bees have been tagged but there may be one million by the end of next year.

The hives studied will be largely domesticated ones looked after by beekeepers, rather than wild, though many kinds of bee will be studied, such as Bumble bees or certain kinds of Amazonian stingless bees (one of Desouza's favourites).

The CSIRO is discussing working with scientists across the globe, from Kenya, Portugal, The Netherlands, Italy, Latvia, US, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina, NZ, Chile and of course Australia.

Australia, the only country in the world without the Varroa mite, serves almost as a control group. Nations nearby including NZ and Papua New Guinea are infested. Apiarists and scientists have been future-proofing by developing strains of more hygienic breeds, more likely to clear or destroy pests in hives.

Experts such as those at the Wheen Foundation, an organisation devoted to bee research, believe the arrival of the mite is not a question of it but simply when.

The Varroa mite is not much to look at, a reddish ovoid with eight tiny legs, like a forgotten cartoon octopus. It is about the size of a pinhead or 0.06 inches wide. The mite attacks both the adult bee and its larvae, passes on several diseases and it feeds on bees' blood.

The value of pollen

Some two thirds of Australian crops are dependent upon some form of pollination. Grains like corn, rice and wheat are pollinated by the wind, which is good news for beer and spirit drinkers should colony collapse ever go beyond the point of no return, but vegetables and fruit generally require bees.

The general estimate therefore of what pollination is worth to Australian agriculture is between $A4 and $A6 billion and though a gap of $A2 billion is significant, no one seems able to score this any more closely. This is partly because the majority of pollination is done by colonies of feral European honeybees; though Australia has 1,500 types of native bee they are generally solitary insects. There is also, anecdotally, not a huge focus on the value of pollination from the agriculture side of things, something those in the pollination business lament.

Some crops such as almonds rely almost entirely on pollination by domestic hives, usually rented out to farms when needed. In the case of almonds bees are so important any bank looking over loan applications for an almond farm will always ask where it plans to source its bees. However almond orchards can't simply stick a few hives on land near a crop as bees need nectar as much as pollen and would starve on a diet of almond tree pollen alone.

Only a quarter of Australia's commercial hives are engaged in pollination services. Even if all were pressed into service there would still be a severe shortfall should the Varroa predictions come true.

Experts suggest Australia will struggle to contain its effects upon pollinators given most bees are wild and not closely managed or watched. They estimate that Varroa could decimate the wild population effectively in five to ten years.

Wheen says if pollination by “wild European honeybees were eliminated by Varroa mite, almost 480,000 colonies of honeybees would be needed to provide pollination services every September. Peak demand could lift this to 750,000 – far exceeding current apiary capability."

The sheer costs this could add to food production are frightening and that looks only at numbers rather than locations. There are not always beekeepers close to the crops that could need them.

On the upside Australia has very healthy honey bees according to a recent survey of 1240 hives across Australia. A release from Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation says Australia's first national survey of honey bee viruses found the country has “one of the healthiest honey bee (Apis mellifera) populations in the world – a key step in re-establishing and maintaining export markets for breeding stock".

The CSIRO is serving as the central hub of the research “as we have experience with microchips, entomologists, data analytics, mathematics... (all the) capability in a single hub," DeSouza says. “This capability includes physicists, entomologists, plant scientists, engineers and big data analysts.

Other problems

Beekeepers face other problems too. Jodie Goldsworthy is the director of Beechworth Honey, in New South Wales. She says there are problems within the industry separate to what is happening to bees globally. Fake honey and cheap Chinese imports are hurting the domestic industry to the point where some beekeepers are shutting down. There are other issues too, such as an ageing beekeeping population that is not being replaced.

Global bee and honey body Apimondia, which has 79 member countries, agrees. They identified honey bee health and fake honey as the two biggest threats facing them at their biennial conference held in Korea this last September. Goldsworthy, the President of the Oceania branch, gave a speech on the pressures the industry faces to track down fake honey whose chemical makeup constantly changes to avoid detection.

Fake honey, in driving down costs, drives beekeepers out of the industry; fewer bees from economic threat is as serious as fewer bees devastated by environmental threats and stressors. Goldsworthy told BlueNotes that possibly a third of beekeepers had closed down since 2008 and a little more input from the agricultural industry into beekeepers would help.

She says that not much attention is paid to the importance of pollination, “one of the problems with the (agricultural) industry is that pollination is taken as a given and assumed that it just happens...people don't value what they haven't lost".

But there are other reasons to look more closely at commercial pollination and protecting bees. Goldsworthy says there are research papers which suggest pollination can increase crop yield by 25 per cent. That, if you think about it, is an astonishing figure. Given how closely all factors are studied when it comes to increasing output it is interesting that something so natural has flown, so to speak, under the radar for so long.

“It's one of the last agronomic inputs that hasn't had a big focus... it increases the food output of the globe... but pollination hasn't been used as a diver of that," she says.

Food security has become a modern buzzword but it is more often linked to climate change or more general environmental problems from pollution to drought. However crops will not grow in any climate if they are not able to reproduce, and pollination is vital.

Helen Clark was a Hanoi-based foreign correspondent and magazine editor for six years. She has written for Time, The Economist, the Australian Associated Press and The Diplomat, among many others.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
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