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UC Davis Buzzing About Bumblebee Scale

Rosemary Malfi / Courtesy

Every bee in the hive is female. UC Davis studies them to gauge food collection, weight and health of the hive.

Rosemary Malfi / Courtesy

Bumblebees are small and fuzzy and they can sting you. But researchers at UC Davis need to weigh them to gauge their health. That's why students in two disciplines are working on a project to make it easier to weigh them.

To weigh each of their 1,500 bees, entomologists and students at UC Davis have had to wake bees in the middle of the night or collect them in nets during the daytime, knock them out with carbon dioxide and then weigh each bee one by one.

But now, there's hope that a tiny scale, a prototype developed by electrical and mechanical engineering students, will allow researchers to weigh each bee as it enters a hive with no disruption required.

0711 16 bm bees rosemary

"The engineers and our lab have worked together to create this prototype and we have trialed it with live bees, but that's all been in the laboratory setting," says Rosemary Malfi, a post-doctoral scholar. "Our next move is to move that piece of equipment into the field and use it there."

Each insect already has a tiny chip glued to its back. Researchers scan the bees and weigh them to identify how much pollen has been collected and to gauge the health of the hive.   

0711 16 bm neal williams bees

Neal Williams, an associate professor of entomology and nematology, says students are still working to perfect the scale to take into account temperature changes and sound vibrations.

"There's a problem capturing that signal fast enough and the signal is so weak essentially," says Williams. "That's where the electrical engineering challenge comes into play. They are right at the end essentially of physics of electrical signals to measure these differences."

He says the effort to develop a bee scale is worth it considering what's required to weigh a bee now.

0711 16 bm old bee scale

"Doing all of this takes an incredible amount of time and effort from a lot of people," he says. "We have lots of undergrads and Rosemary and field assistants of various types working on the field part of the project. So, this technological advancement we hope will reduce that effort and improve the quality of the data."

The Entomology Department is studying how to restore struggling bee populations.

0711 16 bee students