Flight of the Bumblebees

Scientists will follow bumblebees with tiny sensors
Data from OSU's tiny wireless sensors will be used to design horticultural landscapes that attract bumblebees to crops that depend on pollination to produce fruits and vegetables. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Data from OSU’s tiny wireless sensors will be used to design horticultural landscapes. The goal is to attract bumblebees to crops that depend on pollination to produce fruits and vegetables. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Responding to the sting of declining honeybee populations, Oregon State University entomologists and engineers are planning to track native bumblebees with tiny sensors. Many aspects of bumblebee behavior are unknown, but better understanding may lead to bee-friendly agricultural practices, says Sujaya Rao, an entomologist in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Lack of pollination is a risk to human food production,” says Rao, an expert on native bees. “With our sensors, we are searching for answers to basic questions, such as: Do all members of one colony go to pollinate the same field together? Do bumblebees communicate in the colony where food is located? Are bumblebees loyal as a group?”

With support from a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rao will work with Oregon State engineering professors Patrick Chiang and Arun Natarajan to design sensors that can fit comfortably on the insects without affecting their behavior. Each sensor will consist of integrated circuits that broadcast wireless signals about the bee’s location and movement. The sensors will be powered by wireless energy transfer instead of batteries, further reducing weight and size.

“New technologies allow us to build sensors with extremely small dimensions,” says Natarajan, principal investigator in OSU’s High-Speed Integrated Circuits Lab and an assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The concept of placing wireless sensors on insects is a relatively unexplored area.”

Landscaping tactics, such as planting flowers and hedgerows near crops, are believed to promote the presence and population of bumblebees, as well as increase crop yields.

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