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Radio Tagging Bumble Bees to Figure Out What the Buzz Is All About

By Jeremy Hemberger

Bees are on a lot of folk’s minds these days, and for good reason. They provide pollination services to over 70% of the crops worldwide, helping to get us the delicious and nutritious foods that we love, like apples, cucumbers, cherries, berries, and more. Despite their importance across the planet, they’ve taken some hits over the past 50 years.

Jeremy Hemberger

And it’s not just managed honey bees — other bees provide pollination services as well. But, Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about our wild bees and the landscapes they persist in.

For example, how do wild bees perform in agricultural areas? How does the resource landscape offered by these agricultural landscapes affect their performance? Are mass-flowering crops good? What is the background resource level like in managed landscapes? Do they provide adequate floral resources for bees to use? Perhaps most importantly, how can we determine what the best landscapes for bees are?

This question has intrigued me for some time now. Because we cannot ask bees what they prefer, we are typically left with measuring proxies, such as bee diversity and abundance, and even interviewing bee experts to see what they think the best places for bees are. These data can all be mashed together to produce a rough map of bee abundance and pollination services across any given area. However, I think we can do better.

We may not be able to talk to bees directly, but we can examine their behavior to see if any patterns exist that are related to the quality of their environment. But what behavior should we measure?

Social bees, like honey bees and bumble bees, fly up to several kilometers at a time as they try to find pollen and nectar. This foraging behavior is likely variable, and is dependent upon what resources are present and how many. This is the behavior that I have been looking at as a window into the mind of a bee.

But how can we track foraging? Instead of painstakingly sitting at the entrance to a colony, watching individuals fly in and out of their nest over the course of weeks or months, we got high-tech. We use small radio tags (radio frequency identification, or RFID) to track individual bumble bees’ foraging behavior over time. By affixing these micro tags to bees, we get an idea of how long they are out gathering pollen and nectar, how many trips they take per day, how long they rest, and more. These data give us a behavioral metric that we can relate to landscape variables like resource abundance and land cover in attempts to determine if any regular patterns exist.

After two field seasons of using this method, we have a well-defined protocol and have found some interesting patterns regarding bee behavioral responses to the landscape. To help continue our work, we have launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for newer, smaller radio tagging equipment that will substantially increase our experimental power.

So what’s the buzz so far? We know that bees are responding behaviorally to their environment, but there is still a lot to learn. We do know that we are well on our way to finding out just what types of landscapes are truly the bee’s knees.

If you’d like to contribute to this research, please visit our crowdfunding website.

Read more at:

What’s best for bees? Radio tracking bumblebee foraging to determine the best bee environments

“Buzzworthy Research” – OnWisconsin Magazine

Lakes Lessons Features “Native Pollinators in Wisconsin Agriculture” – Door County Pulse

“Monitoring bees with microchips” – NBC 15 News – August 12, 2015

Science on Tap, Minocqua WI. – September 2, 2015

“Tagging bees to help support pollinators” – Larry Meiller Show – March 18, 2015

“Bee Happy: UW Researchers Improve Pollinator Habitat” – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jeremy Hemberger is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying bumble bee and wild pollinator ecology. Follow him on Twitter at @jH_wisc.


  1. I’d love to tag one from our BumbleBee Hive: Every year in the spring, somehow they end up coming out of my kitchen sink drain! I carry each one on a flyswatter outside, they are angry, tired and extremely frustrated by the time they find their way out!

    I don’t blame them one little bit! What starts with furious buzzing, curiosity, coming from inside my kitchen sink drain? Then amazement that ends with making sure they get quickly to the Lanai Door, to the Great Wide Open Backyard & OUTSIDE :)
    I want them to Live.

  2. I forgot to add, I can only answer a few questions about their lives. Ours live next to an abandoned apple orchard on one side and a very old pasture & field on the other. No crop is sown on either side of it but we garden and have many trees. They actually have a hive entrance which starts at ground level under very old siding on our 1910 Farmhouse. From there, we have not been able to discover exactly how they end up in our pipes or inside of our plumbing. It’s bizarre and yet the ones who make their way out of the drain which has no garbage disposal at all, they get to live because I capture every single one. They are larger than your photo, and I’m pretty sure they are newborns. I will continue to be their escort to the great outdoors.

    • CaGirlsLife, in order for water to drain properly, your pipes are fitted with a vent, which usually looks like a pipe coming out of your roof. The bees are probably getting in that way. You can stop them by adding screen or some other type of barrier that will not hinder the flow of air. Ask a plumber.

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