A wide range of bees play an important role in pollinating everything from wildflowers to agricultural crops. In fact, many farmers purchase bees to help get their fruits and vegetables pollinated. The question then becomes: Are those released bees actually staying in the farmer’s field to do the job, or are they flying off to places unknown?
Scientists have long sought a cheap and easy way to track released bees, but so far it’s been an uphill battle. Typically, scientists use a mark-and-recapture study, which means that bees are given an identifying mark of some sort, released into the field, and later collected in a trap or net to see how many of the captured bees are marked. That usually involves killing the bees to identify them to species and to check for the mark. Such mark-and-recapture studies don’t follow every single bee in a release, but they do provide an idea of whether it is the released bees—or other wild bees—that are actually doing the pollinating.
A new study published in June in the open-access Journal of Insect Science outlines a new technique that quickly, simply, and inexpensively marks bees—and it’s non-lethal, too. The technique relies on the application of powder made from dried egg whites (albumin): The powder sticks to the insect, and collected insects can later be checked for the presence of the powder with a straightforward test called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). It seemed feasible for tracking bees, Boyle says, because albumin powder is readily available at grocery stores and very inexpensive to test for.
With good results from the field work, this method could be useful beyond agricultural surveys, according to the paper’s authors. It could help investigate bee behavior in native ecosystems and provide insight into studies that explore the effect of urbanization, pesticides, or pathogens on bees, many populations of which are experiencing declines.
Read more about this study at Entomology Today.