A low-cost solution for tracking small-bodied insects in the field: Developing solar-powered, active RFID tags

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Conservation Science


The rapid movements of small-bodied insects, such as bumblebees and honeybees, are difficult to rigorously document. Although insect monitoring tools and techniques exist they are too limited by size, range and reliability to be used for understanding pollination, gene flow, disease movement and other landscape-scale phenomena. Scientists have used radio frequency technology to track larger animals, such as birds and mammals, but the battery-powered radio transmitters are too big and heavy to be carried by all but the largest flying insects. Harmonic radar has been used to track bumblebees and, although this system has proved very useful, there are some severe limitations. Harmonic radar requires a 3 cm aerial to be attached vertically to a bee's back, effectively preventing the bee from accessing its nest and gathering resources from flowers. Also, the system only works on direct line of sight, meaning the signal is lost if a bee flies behind an intervening object such as a hedge. Harmonic radar is also very expensive costing millions of pounds for the hi-tech equipment.
Our project will develop a new, cutting-edge tracking system using tiny, solar- powered microchips that are glued to small-bodied insects without affecting their ability to fly and forage normally. Each microchip - or active radio frequency identification (RFID) tag - emits a unique signal to identify individual insects that is picked-up within a 1-2 m radius of a detector unit. Once developed and demonstrated for bees in experiments at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the technology could be used in the wild. A network of field-deployed detectors could be positioned within patches of flowers dotted around the landscape to track the distances and paths of tagged bees. This approach to tracking insects has never been attempted before.
Why would it be useful to track insect movement patterns? By studying insect movement, migration and behaviour, scientists can help to provide answers to important ecological questions that impact the diversity, health and persistence of species and ecosystems. For example, major worldwide declines in bee numbers in recent decades have raised concerns over reductions in essential pollination services to wildflowers and crops. With the use of the new technology to track insect pollinators, studies would provide a better understanding of the largely unknown impacts of habitat fragmentation and neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and the pollination services they provide. The technology could also be used, for example, to study the movements of alien insect pests that have dramatic impacts on native flora and fauna and cause serious economic losses to farmers every year. By understanding the requirements of these pests we will be better able to devise control strategies. These are just a few timely examples of how, with the use of the new technology, studying insect movement has wider reaching consequences for understanding the world around us. The new information would help us to more effectively conserve and protect nature for future generations.

Planned Impact

The proposed technology is a major advance in the field of active RF technologies and their use in biological sciences and the commercial private sector. Miniaturised solar-powered active RFID tags are unlike anything currently available on the global market and the new technology has a wide range of potential scientific and non-scientific applications.
This project seeks to develop prototype active RFID tags that would enable tagged small-bodied insects (>50 mg) to be detected within a 1-2 m range of low cost, low power detector base stations located anywhere in the landscape. This would represent a major advance on the capabilities and utility of current tracking solutions (i.e. passive RFID tags and harmonic radar). As such, the proposed technology has real potential to revolutionise the study of insect behaviours and open up exciting new areas of research (e.g. in landscape ecology and genetics). This Grant would enable the first steps in developing a commercial, low cost insect tracking solution for use by other researchers in various disciplines. We expect the technology to be commercially available within 3-5 years of developing the prototype and for tags to cost in the region of <£2 each when bought in bulk (>100 tags).
Our novel and improved methodological approach to studying insect movement patterns in the field could be used to increase our understanding of threats to biodiversity, plant health and biosecurity. The technology could be used, for example, within studies which seek to examine: the effects of habitat fragmentation on pollen and gene exchange between plant populations; the effect of exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides on bee homing ability; the impacts of bee declines on pollination services to wildflowers and crops; the risks associated with hybrid seed production by GM and non-GM crops and crop wild relatives; and, the effects of alien (insect) species on native flora and fauna and the agricultural and silvicultural economy. The output of such studies would contribute important evidence to several Defra Evidence Plans (i.e. Biodiversity and Ecosystems; Bee Health; Re-emerging diseases, endemic diseases and enhanced surveillance methodology; Tree Health and Plant Security) to inform policy-makers on the necessary strategies to increase the effectiveness of policy. This new information would also benefit environmental/conservation land managers and advisors within government agencies, NGOs and charities (e.g. Fera, Natural England, Forestry Commission, the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, BSBI).
The R&D within this project has much wider applicability beyond biology and science. The global RFID technologies market is expected to reach USD 19 Billion by 2014. Uses of current RFID technologies include commerce, transportation and logistics, and personal and national security.
The project supports a small UK business (Tumbling Dice Ltd) with highly specialised skills in hardware and software development for ecological, scientific and commercial purposes. The project will foster a link between science and the private sector, thus producing a "win-win" relationship. Tumbling Dice Ltd will use the enhanced business revenue and innovative capacity to grow and diversify in the science and technology market and attract further investment.
The proposed technology is a new and exciting way to study insects and has strong 'curb appeal' to the general public. We will use media opportunities to publicise the project and increase public awareness and understanding of associated important biodiversity issues. A society that understands the natural environment is more likely to value it and want to conserve it for future generations. More broadly, the project is of human, societal and economic benefit because the potential scientific applications of the technology may contribute to a better understanding of ecosystem services and food security.


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