flight of the bumblebee

Don’t tell my boss, but one of the great things about working as a researcher at university is the chance to work/get distracted into a diverse range of fields – getting involved in lots of different topics that seem fun or interesting!

Bumblebee populations (and many other insects) have suffered greatly in the UK (we’ve lost two species and others are on the brink), so for the last few years I’ve been interested in the problem of how researchers can track or follow bumblebees during foraging. This sounds like a rather esoteric problem, but understanding their foraging and mating behaviour is invaluable for conservation, and the method might also help us find their nests.

fig 1
Fig 1 First version of system

For the last two years I applied to the “Socially Enterprising Researcher” grant, to pay for equipment for my bumblebee tracker invention! It’s taken a few iterations (figure 1 & 2), but last month we finally launched the system and tested it with a fake-bumblebee, pulled along the ground on the end of a string.

fig 2.jpg
Fig 2 Latest version of system


The tracker itself is simply a camera with a flash (hooked up to a raspberry pi computer). To use, one sticks a tiny retro-reflector on the bee (in effect it wears a little high-vis jacket!). Then you take two photos – one with the flash and one without. The bee appears as a bright dot in the flash-photo. By subtracting the non-flash photo this bright dot stands out.

If you take photos frequently enough you can track the bumblebee as it buzzes across the fields to and from its favourite foraging flowers.

fig 3
Fig 3 The tracking system on its maiden flight.

Receiving even a relatively small amount of funding has allowed the project to take off. In particular the purchase of the camera with an electronic shutter has been vital to the project.

The funding has also made it easier to approach researchers in other departments for support. In particular, earlier support with drone-mounted tracking (Engineering), access and advice on insects (Landscape and Architecture) and use of the High Bradfield site (Geography).

It’s been particularly helpful to be collaborating with Richard Comont from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who has been both a useful advisor and offered moral support when I’ve become doubtful of the new method! In particular he is interested in how the method should be far cheaper than the alternative (harmonic radar) – making it far more accessible to many ecologists.

fig 4
Fig 4 Demonstration of tracking reflector from balloon mounted system. Actual location marked with yellow circle. The identified location is marked with a white cross. The confidence in the identification is written in the title. Photos 5 seconds apart.
fig 5
Fig 5 Crashed tracking system (the important bits survived!)

Development is on-going, with progress (see figures 3 and 4 showing fake-bee being tracked successfully) mixed with setbacks (figure 5 – the tracking system after having fallen off the balloon. Remarkably most of it was undamaged, apart from the box!).

Over the summer we’ll be refining the system and start testing with real bumblebees!

For more information see the latest flight attempts on my blog  http://www.michaeltsmith.org.uk/?p=215

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