An international collaboration of researchers, beekeepers, farmers and technology companies is using miniscule electronic sensors to help understand why global honey bee populations are disappearing. The sensors, measuring 2.5 x 2.5mm and weighing just 5.4mg, have been glued to the back of 10,000 bees in Australia to track and model their behaviour.

Honey bees are essential for pollination and are responsible for about one third of the food humans eat, including fruits, vegetables, oils, seeds and nuts. Scientists have attributed the dramatic recent slide in bee numbers to a number of factors including climate change, pesticides, the parasitic Varroa mite, and an outbreak of a condition known as colony collapse disorder.

Scientists at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) believe the micro-trackers will help narrow down the stress factors affecting bees. "The tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate," professor Paulo de Souza, CSIRO science leader, said.

"We're also investigating what key factors, or combination of factors, lead to bee deaths on mass. The sensors, working in partnership with Intel technology, operate in a similar way to an aeroplane's black box flight recorder in that they provide us with vital information about what stress factors impact bee health."

CSIRO pollination researcher Dr Saul Cunningham said Australia was very fortunate to be the only country to not be afflicted with the devastating Varroa mite. "This puts Australia in a good position to act as a control group for research on this major issue that could one day become our problem too," he said.