Although Melipona bees are tiny, the tags are tinier.

Over 500 species of stingless bees are native to the tropics and subtropics worldwide. They are a highly diverse group of social bees. Hundreds of thousands of worker bees live in their perennial colonies, and visit flowering plants and crops.

Although some species, like those from the genus Melipona have been successfully managed in small scale operations like traditional honey production, in Central and South America mainly, there has been no large-scale commercial application of stingless bees as pollinators that compares to the scope of honeybee and bumblebee management. Other stingless bee genera have also been used in Africa, Oceania, and Asia in small operations. 

Scientists have struggled for years to understand bee movements and foraging behaviors. It is tedious to follow bees from flower to flower. Catching bees with nets to identify species visiting different types of flowers can only tell so much about their behavior. Knowing where bees are foraging and what they are eating helps us understand their health and chances for survival in the face of ongoing changes in climate and to their habitats. 

This unrelated 3:43-minute video by Exploration Films is about how the Melipona bee defies evolution:



An international group of scientists from Brazil, USA, Australia, and Belgium formed a team, and used the Radio Frequency Identification System Ultra Small Package Tag (USPT) that was developed by Hitachi Chemical. To monitor bee behavior, researchers attached these radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to the backs of Neotropical stingless bees, the Melipona fasciculata, at the meliponary of Eastern Amazon Embrapa, in the northern region of Brazil. These tags track movement by using microcomputers.

They were especially interested to observe drifting patterns, which is when foragers enter foreign nests. Results showed that only 35% of bees never drifted to a nearby hive. 

Researchers found that 64.1 percent of individually tagged M. fasciculata bees drifted between nesting boxes to other colonies of bees. Their peak activity period occurred at 9 am, and pollen foragers lived longer than nectar foragers.

Meteorological data collected alerted researchers to the effect that temperature, solar irradiation, and humidity had on the drifting rates and foraging activities.

This amazing research establishes a new system for understanding bees using RFID tag technology and it will help to increase our understanding of the bee biology, habits and patterns of Neotropical stingless bees. 

The tags and bees are also being evaluated for their potential commercial application as crop pollinators.

The entire detailed report can be read in the paper published last month at Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.