Using radar technology to understand how insect pollinators use and move around the landscape, and the implications for the plants they pollinate.



Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 16:00





  • European Research Council


This ambitious project combines cutting edge technology development with in-depth biological study to shed light on how insect pollinators explore the space around them and efficiently exploit the resources they find there. We will develop a new generation of harmonic radar technology, dramatically advancing our ability to track the movements of bees and other insects that contribute to the pollination of crops and wild plants. This technology will allow us to place our growing understanding of the movements and navigational abilities of pollinators in their natural context of the ecological landscape. We have tracked foraging bumblebees throughout their entire lives to understand how the ways they explore the landscape and use their knowledge changes across a lifetime and to illuminate differences between individuals. Other aims for this project include understanding how bees locate and memorise flower patches; how they find and learn efficient foraging routes whether and how they can communicate this knowledge to their nest-mates; and how queens and males combine the need to search for food with the search for mates. Our findings will not only help us understand pollinators better but generate practical knowledge for conservation and land management.


How bees and other insects navigate is one of the most exciting and successful fields of animal behaviour, involving scientists from a huge range of backgrounds, including behaviour ecologists, physiologists, neuroscientists and even robotics experts. In the past, though, the difficulty of keeping track of small insects in their natural environment has meant that most studies were forced to take place in very restricted, simplified circumstances, following bees in small, artificial arenas, for example, or allowing them to feed at a single feeder rather than the hundreds of flowers they may encounter in the wild.

Harmonic radar technology - in the history of which Rothamsted has played a central role – is one of the few tools scientist have available to them to track insect movements at a large scale and under natural conditions. It works by attaching a lightweight piece of electronic equipment, called a transponder, to the insects back. This transponder transforms the radio signal emitted by the radar unit into a uniquely identifiable signal which stands out clearly amidst the noise from other objects in the environment allowing us to detect our insect’s position. The current state of the technology, however, still imposes many limitations on researchers.

This ambitious project is a collaboration between engineers and biologists to develop a new generation of harmonic radars. Armed with this new technology we seek to place the study of insect movement back in its natural ecological context. We will investigate how bees and other pollinating insects explore and learn about the complex landscapes in which they live; how they search for food or mates in a cluttered and often bewildering environment; how they find and learn efficient routes to places they need to visit repeatedly; and how their use of the landscape changes over the course of a lifetime. Understanding how insect pollinators use the landscape is not just interesting for what it tells us about the insects, but will also help us understand how pollen, and even diseases, are spread between plants. This will have major implications for conservation, farming and land management practice.

The major engineering innovations we are developing include:

Increasing the range over which we can track bees by allowing multiple radars to communicate flexibly by one another

Developing means to determine the height of an insect, allowing us to track its behaviour in all three dimensions

Weather- and wind-proofing so that we can track insects under all conditions

Making the equipment more flexible and manoeuvrable, allowing us to deploy the radars in a wider range of environments

Miniaturising the transponders to allow us to track a greater range of species

We are also investigating the possibility of tracking multiple individuals at once.

In a 2016 study, we tracked the flight of foraging bumblebees throughout their entire lifetimes, allowing us to tell their ‘life stories’ for the first time. We showed how their behaviour changed as they gained experience, from thoroughly exploring their environment to exploiting particular flower patches, and found that there were very large differences between individuals in the ways they used the landscape. Other aspects of pollinator behaviour we are interested in include:

What information can insects acquire from their surroundings to help them find their way around?

How do they search for flowers to feed from?

How do they find and memorise efficient routes between multiple flowers or patches of flowers?

How do queens and males search the landscape for potential mates?

How do they balance the desire to find mates with the need to find food?

How do they exploit the third dimension find resources and plan routes (e.g. do they fly high to survey the landscape from above)?



Queen Mary, University of London - Prof. Lars Chittka (Principal Investigator); Dr Joe Woodgate; Dr James Makinson; Dr Clint Perry (Postdoctoral Research Assistants)