Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 5, pp 891–897 | Cite as

An automated system for tracking and identifying individual nectar foragers at multiple feeders

  • Kazuharu Ohashi
  • Daniel D’Souza
  • James D. Thomson


Nectar-feeding animals have served as the subjects of many experimental studies and theoretical models of foraging. Their willingness to visit artificial feeders renders many species amenable to controlled experiments using mechanical “flowers” that replenish nectar automatically. However, the structural complexity of such feeders and the lack of a device for tracking the movements of multiple individuals have limited our ability to ask some specific questions related to natural foraging contexts, especially in competitive situations. To overcome such difficulties, we developed an experimental system for producing computer records of multiple foragers harvesting from simple artificial flowers with known rates of nectar secretion, using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to identify individual animals. By using infrared detectors (light-emitting diodes and phototransistors) to activate the RFID readers momentarily when needed, our system prevents the RFID chips from heating up and disturbing the foraging behavior of focal animals. To demonstrate these advantages, we performed a preliminary experiment with a captive colony of bumble bees, Bombus impatiens. In the experiment, two bees were tagged with RFID chips (2.5 × 2.5 mm, manufactured by Hitachi-Maxell, Ltd., Tokyo, Japan) and allowed to forage on 16 artificial flowers arranged in a big flight cage. Using the resulting data set, we present details of how the bees increased their travel speed between flowers, while decreasing the average nectar crop per flower, as they gained experience. Our system provides a powerful tool to track the movement patterns, reward history, and long-term foraging performance of individual foragers at large spatial scales.


Artificial flowers Bombus Foraging LED sensors Renewing resources RFIDs Spatial use 



Chad Brassil first suggested the use of radio-tagging technology for tracking and identification of bees. Alex Fujiwara and Toshiyuki Kaneko (Hitachi-Maxell Corporation) provided the product specifications of the Coil-on-Chip RFID system® required for developing the data acquisition system. Alison Leslie helped us improve the design of flowers and perform data collection. Luu Trung crafted the artificial flowers. Useful discussion and invaluable help have been contributed by James Burns. Jonathan Cnaani, Robert Gegear, and Michael Otterstatter also contributed to the development of our idea. Biobest provided a commercial colony of B. impatiens. Two anonymous reviewers made useful comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by a fellowship of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for Research Abroad and Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (B) to K.O. and grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Ontario Innovation Trust to J.D.T.

Contributions of authors

J.D.T. conceived and designed the original motorized artificial flowers for continuous nectar secretion. K.O. refined the mechanical aspects of artificial flowers so that a bee can obtain only a small amount of nectar at once. D.D., K.O., and J.D.T. devised the monitor system. D.D. built the monitor system, including both instrumentation and software. K.O. and J.D.T. planned and performed the preliminary experiments. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


  1. Bertsch A (1984) Foraging in male bumblebees (Bombus lucorum L.): maximizing energy or minimizing water load? Oecologia 62:325–336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Castellanos MC, Wilson P, Thomson JD (2002) Dynamic nectar replenishment in flowers of Penstemon (Scrophulariaceae). Am J Bot 89:111–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chopra SB (2002) Basic facts on mechanical engineering. Anmol, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  4. Cnaani J, Thomson JD, Papaj DR (2006) Flower choice and learning in foraging bumblebees: effects of variation in nectar volume and concentration. Ethology 112:278–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cresswell JE, Smithson A (2005) Artificial flowers and pollinators in pollination research. In: Dafni A, Kevan PG, Husband BC (eds) Practical pollination biology. Enviroquest, Cambridge, pp 340–353Google Scholar
  6. Dyer AG, Whitney HM, Arnold SEJ, Glover BJ, Chittka L (2006) Behavioural ecology: bees associate warmth with floral colour. Nature 442:525–525CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Gill FB (1988) Trapline foraging by hermit hummingbirds—competition for an undefended, renewable resource. Ecology 69:1933–1942CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Giurfa M (1996) Movement patterns of honeybee foragers: motivation and decision rules dependent on the rate of reward. Behaviour 133:579–596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hartling LK, Plowright RC (1979) Foraging by bumble bees on patches of artificial flowers: a laboratory study. Can J Zool 57:1866–1870CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kadmon R (1992) Dynamics of forager arrivals and nectar renewal in flowers of Anchusa stigosa. Oecologia 92:552–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Keaser T, Motro U, Shur Y, Shmida A (1996) Overnight memory retention of foraging skills by bumblebees is imperfect. Anim Behav 52:95–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kevan PG (1975) Sun-tracking solar furnaces in high arctic flowers: significance for pollination and insects. Science 189:723–726CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Makino TT, Sakai S (2007) Experience changes pollinator responses to floral display size: from size-based to reward-based foraging. Funct Ecol 21:854–863CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Moffatt L (2001) Metabolic rate and thermal stability during honeybee foraging at different reward rates. J Exp Biol 204:759–766PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Molet M, Chittka L, Stelzer R, Streit S, Raine N (2008) Colony nutritional status modulates worker responses to foraging recruitment pheromone in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 62:1919–1926CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ohashi K, Thomson JD (2005) Efficient harvesting of renewing resources. Behav Ecol 16:592–605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ohashi K, Thomson JD, D’Souza D (2007) Trapline foraging by bumble bees: IV. Optimization of route geometry in the absence of competition. Behav Ecol 18:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ohashi K, Leslie A, Thomson JD (2008) Trapline foraging by bumble bees: V. Effects of experience and priority on competitive performance. Behav Ecol 19:936–948CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Pflumm W (1986) Rate of supply of sugar solution and behaviour of collector wasps (Paravespula germanica). Ethology 72:15–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Possingham HP (1988) A model of resource renewal and depletion: applications to the distribution and abundance of nectar in flowers. Theor Popul Biol 33:138–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Possingham HP (1989) The distribution and abundance of resources encountered by a forager. Am Nat 133:42–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Robinson E, Richardson T, Sendova-Franks A, Feinerman O, Franks N (2009) Radio tagging reveals the roles of corpulence, experience and social information in ant decision making. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 63:627–636CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Sarma SE, Weis SA, Engels DW (2002) RFID systems, security and privacy implications. In: Technical Report. AutoID Center, MassachusettsGoogle Scholar
  24. Schilman PE, Roces F (2003) Assessment of nectar flow rate and memory for patch quality in the ant Camponotus rufipes. Anim Behav 66:687–693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Seymour RS, White CR, Gibernau M (2003) Environmental biology: heat reward for insect pollinators. Nature 426:243–244CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Stout JC, Goulson D (2002) The influence of nectar secretion rates on the responses of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) to previously visited flowers. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 52:239–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Streit S, Bock F, Pirk CW, Tautz J (2003) Automatic life-long monitoring of individual insect behaviour now possible. Zoology 106:169–171CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Sumner S, Lucas E, Barker J, Isaac N (2007) Radio-tagging technology reveals extreme nest-drifting behavior in a eusocial insect. Curr Biol 17:140–145CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Want R (2004) The magic of RFID. ACM Queue 2:40–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Williams NM, Thomson JD (1998) Trapline foraging by bumble bees: III. Temporal patterns of visitation and foraging success at single plants. Behav Ecol 9:612–621CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kazuharu Ohashi
    • 1
  • Daniel D’Souza
    • 2
  • James D. Thomson
    • 3
  1. 1.Graduate School of Life and Environmental SciencesUniversity of TsukubaTsukubaJapan
  2. 2.MississaugaCanada
  3. 3.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations