The world of bee research is all abuzz, and the man who gets the credit is Stephen Buchmann, who borrowed a honey of an idea from his local supermarket.
Buchmann, 36, an entomologist at the Department of Agriculture’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, has put bar codes—those black-and-white price lines that show up on supermarket items—on the backs of 100 bees.
As many as 11 stripes, less than one-tenth of an inch long, are glued to the tiny hairs on the insects’ backs. A laser barcode reader at the hive’s doorway records each bee’s exit and entrance.
Until now, it has been virtually impossible for researchers to log bees’ activities. In fact, previous tagging devices—like painted dots or liquid paper correction fluid—upset the bees’ normal behavior and resulted in flawed findings. So Buchmann made a beeline to Sprague Ackley, a scientist at Intermec Corp., a scanning-equipment manufacturer in Lynnwood, Wash., and created what may be the world’s tiniest bar-coding system.
To apply the bars, Buchmann first knocks out the chosen bees with carbon dioxide. “Then,” he says, “under a microscope, we pick up the precut bars in forceps, dip them in shellac and align them on the thorax, where they can’t reach around with their legs to pull them off.” Since the paper and glue weigh three to five milligrams, one-twentieth as much as the nectar and pollen the bees normally carry, they soon forget the bar code is there. And since it’s so small, it doesn’t affect the bees’ aerodynamics.
The bar codes eventually fall off. But by then they have served their purpose. “It’s like the bees are punching a time clock for us, and we know when they come in and when they go out and, indirectly, how long they live,” says Buchmann, a native of Rockford, Ill. “The more we know about bees, the more we can use them to our advantage, in terms of cross-pollination or telling beekeepers where to put their hives.
“The bar codes give me the real nitty-gritty. It’s like Bee 54, where are you?”