2014 – the year in ten posts

Miniature dragon

3D-printed dragon anyone?

With the year winding up, we thought we’d look back on the stories that struck a chord – or a nerve – in 2014. It was a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the implausible.

The sublime was definitely the Rosetta mission and Philae’s (not quite) perfect landing on the surface of the (not quite) evocatively-named comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, never before in the field of exploration have so many people so fervently urged a fridge-sized box on legs half a billion kilometres away to succeed against the odds.

We played a back-up role in the landing. Using the DSS34 antenna, NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex (managed by CSIRO at the Tidbinbilla site) provided ongoing back-up communication coverage between Rosetta/Philae and the anxious science team at ESA’s mission control centre in Germany.

It’s a lot more down to earth, and of more practical use at the moment, but some news about renewable energy was just as exciting. If there was one good thing about the alarmingly warm autumn eastern Australia had in 2014, it was this: a team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle used the sunlight flooding their solar fields to produce ‘supercritical’ steam, at the highest temperature and pressure levels ever recorded using solar power.

That sounds impressive when you just say it, but to realise how impressive it is, you need to know that supercritical steam is the ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines. This is the solar energy equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. Solar thermal power plants have traditionally only operated at ‘subcritical’ levels – the heavy lifting was left to fossil fuels. But now we’ve demonstrated that the power plants of the future could feasibly use the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price. The technology’s not ready for commercialisation yet, but the breakthrough has attracted a lot of interest.

There are other kinds of stories that always attract a lot of interest, and food safety – as we’re discovering yet again with the current raw milk controversy – is one of them. Fortunately, there was a pretty positive reaction to our story on whether it’s safe to cut the mould off food. Unlike supercritical steam, the comments generated more light than heat, which is always both gratifying and a relief. We came down firmly on the side of a conservative approach (and that’s not conservative of the food, more of the health). And in response to the comments, we published a clarification about spoilage in other kinds of food – the beauty of a blog is that you can incorporate the feedback from your readers. We love intelligent, constructive comments. So a big thanks to those who made them.

3D printed mouth piece

A personalised solution to sleep aponea: The 3D printed mouth piece.

We got a lot of interest, too, for a story about 3D-printed mouthpieces for people with sleep apnoea. Sadly, a lot of this interest seemed to be tinged with a note of desperation. While we were delighted to be able to tell a story that gave hope to so many stressed snorers and their loved ones, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable to have to let people know they couldn’t be part of trials for the mouthpieces. On the up-side, however, Oventus, the company making the mouthguards, tells us that they’re steadily getting closer to being commercially available. Since we’ve had interest from several countries, we think they might have a hit on their hands. We just hope they’re able to help the man who told us his snoring is so bad that the cat left home. The cat would probably be grateful too. We suggested a cat hammock in the meantime.

And just to continue on the camping theme, we got a lot of love for a story about backpacks. Bees with backpacks. This is just a terrific bit of research. We’ve put tiny 2.5mm sq RFID chips on the backs of 5000 bees. Now, this sounds a bit weird, but there’s an excellent reason for it. Collecting bee movement information at this scale will allow researchers to generate a four-dimensional model (three dimensions plus time) of bee behaviour and the way they move through the landscape. This is vital information: wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing altogether. In some cases this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s Colony Collapse Disorder, believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.

3D printed bike

Sam’s new 3D printed sweet ride.

Everybody seems to love stories about 3D printing (and who can blame them?). We had a couple of rippers this year. First, there was the 3D-printed bike. More specifically, the bike with 3D-printed titanium parts, specifically engineered to provide ‘infinite flexibility’ and give a far superior riding experience, along with quite a bit of bike envy. It also looks seriously good, and its proud owner/designer seems to be very pleased with it. We don’t know if the man at the centre of our other big 3D printing success this year (there’s one other, but we’ll come to that later) is a bike rider, but thanks to some brilliant work by our titanium printing team, he has the option. He had cancer in his heel bone, and the standard treatment for that is to amputate the leg below the knee. Fortunately, his surgeon had seen a story we did last year, about 3D-printed shoes for horses, and wondered if it was possible to print a new heel bone to replace the cancerous one. It was. One of the strengths of 3D printing is its ability to produce complex structures quickly: within two weeks of his surgeon making the call, the new heel bone was in place. We can now reveal that we sat on that story for months, busting to tell everyone, but couldn’t until after the three-month check-up showed everything was working well. We were very relieved – but not nearly as relieved as the recipient.

Not all health problems have as quick a fix as supplying a new part. It would be good if they did, but sometimes treatment is a long haul. Overweight and obesity fits into that category, but our new Impromy™ diet program helps to make the long haul as pleasant as it can be. Our talented team worked with Probiotec Ltd to develop a holistic program that includes meal replacements. This is a big help for people with busy lifestyles: often a reason that cooking and meal preparation fall down the priority list. It’s a research-based program that builds on our Total Wellbeing Diet research and leverages it to use with smart phone technology in a community pharmacy setting.

But we’d be very grateful if you disposed of the wrappers from the meal replacements carefully. Sometimes the big science stories aren’t good news, and this one certainly wasn’t. We went looking for rubbish, and what we found was sobering. In a survey of the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists, we found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About 75 per cent of it is plastic, and, in a pretty grim indictment of our throwaway culture, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to over 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in our coastal waters. Worse, we can extrapolate from this to predict that by 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.

If it’s bad news you want, though, our biannual State of the Climate report is – sadly – hard to beat. It’s getting warmer. Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years with the period between 1951 and 1980, we find that very warm months are five times as frequent. The frequency of very cool months, conversely, has dropped by about a third. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s. Autumn and winter rainfall is declining, particularly in south-western and south-eastern Australia. Heavy rainfall events with the potential for flooding are projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely from increases in spring and summer rainfall. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offset the autumn and winter declines in southern parts of Australia: it’s mainly concentrated in north-western Australia.

Sophie and Toothless.

Sophie and Toothless.

We don’t want to end on such a depressing note though, so … DRAGONS! This is the implausible bit, and it was absolutely, positively our biggest hit of the year. You might remember it. Seven-year-old Sophie wrote to us, asking if we could make her one. So we, er, did. Not a flying, screeching, fire-breathing one (we haven’t got the lab space), but a 3D-printed (there it is again) titanium (there’s that again too) one. This story captured the imagination of many people (140 000 page views worth), and might even have inspired Sophie, or another child, to become a scientist. We loved the comments we got on this story nearly as much as everyone seemed to love Sophie’s original letter. The erudite discussion on the history and physiology of dragons was a delight. Thank you to all the readers and dreamers who contributed.

Now, how would we go using dragons to generate supercritical steam? Just a thought…


Voting in swarms is all the buzz

By Emily Lehmann

There’s been a buzz around town about our bee research this year, and for good reason.

In a world first, we’ve been microchipping thousands of bees with tiny sensors in Australia and South America to monitor their activity and the way they interact with the environment.

Bee with backpack/

A bee. With a backpack. What of it?

We’ve called this ‘swarm sensing’ and it could help gather the information we need to find a solution to the mysterious and devastating decline of bees around the world.

While we’ve been buzzily strapping these tiny sensors on bees in the Amazon in collaboration with Vale Institute of Technology, there has been a swarm of attention around our work back home.

Swarm sensing hit the polls earlier this week, as one of five finalists in The Australian Innovation Challenge’s category for Environment, Agriculture and Food. And, it’s up to the people – that means you – to decide which one of these innovations deserves to win $5000.

Bee hive

These guys are an important link in the global food chain – and they need our help!

Now, if cute honey bees wearing mini, colour-coordinated ‘backpacks’, isn’t enough to sway your vote, then we’ve gathered a few hot facts about why this work is so critical to get you over the line:

  1. Around one third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination.
  1. By aiding agriculture, honey bees earn an estimated $4-6 billion for Australia every year.
  1. Wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing all together around the world. There are two major problems causing their decline: the varroa mite and the little understood Colony Collapse Disorder
  1. While there is a real risk, bees in Australia have not been affected by the Varroa mite or Colony Collapse Disorder.
  1. Parasites, pollution and pesticides are potential factors in the decline of honey bee populations.

To vote CSIRO, visit The Australian Innovation Challenge article and select ‘swarm sensing’ in the poll at the bottom of the page. Go on, #voteCSIRO and do it for the bees!


Bees backpacking in Brazil

Bee with a backpack...of the sensor variety.

Bee with a backpack…of the sensor variety.

By Emma Pyers

How do bees in the Amazon jungle compare to those in Tasmania? They get up earlier, for a start.

Paulo de Souza and his team have been tracking bees in the two regions using tiny backpack sensors as part of our Swarm Sensing Project to gather biological and ecological data to improve honey bee health.

The tiny backpacks are just a quarter of a centimetre square and are fitted to the back of the bees.

“We have already attached the micro-sensors to the backs of thousands of bees in Tasmania and the Amazon and we’re using the same surveillance technologies to monitor what each bee is doing, giving us a new view on bees and how they interact with their environment,” Paulo said.

Graph: Daily distribution of bees in Brazil and Tasmania

Daily distribution of bees in Brazil and Tasmania (click for large version)

“Once we have captured this information, we’ll be able to model it. This will help us understand how to manage our landscapes in order to benefit insects like bees, as they play such a key role in our lives. For example, one third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination, that’s a pretty generous free service these humble insects provide us!”

Early modelling has shown one notable difference between the bees in Tasmania and those in the Amazon; Amazon bees are up and about very early in the morning while Tassie bees prefer to wait until the day warms up before they leave the hive.

But finding out what time bees get out of bed is only a tiny part of what the research can show us. For example the research will also look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of commonly used chemicals.


A global buzz in micro sensing

We’re working with the Vale Institute of Technology in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on micro-sensory technology and systems (read  more about what Vale is up to here).

Working with researchers across the globe has its unique challenges as well as its rewards, and it’s the physical challenges that have been the most interesting.

“As the Africanised honey bees were very aggressive, the hive was placed in an isolated area away from housing and domestic animals – and isolation meant working in densely vegetated areas,” Paulo explained.  “We had to clear a path to the hive and we wore fully protective bee clothing which was tough given the extreme humidity and heat.”

The Brazilian media got a taste of what it was like to work in these conditions, when they suited up to interview Paulo and our colleagues from the Vale Institute of Technology about their work

Pressure from the press

Pressure from the press

The collapse in global populations

Bee health is important globally however, honey bee populations around the world are in danger.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear – and Varroa mite are two major problems facing bee populations globally. While these two problems haven’t appeared in Australia, there is a very real risk.  And what happens if it does? Catastrophe!

Check out this video where Peter Norris, Tasmanian beekeeper, describes his first hand experience with CCD while working in the United Kingdom.

So it’s a good thing our scientists, and their colleagues in Tassie and Brazil, are on the case.

To learn more about how we’re trying to save honey bees around the world tune into ABC Catalyst at 8pm tonight.

CSIRO’s Swarm Sensing Project is a partnership with the University of Tasmania and receives funding from Vale, a Global mining company.


Watch-bees on the job

How much are bees worth to you?

Well, did you know they earn an estimated $4-$6B for Australia every year? Another way to look at it is – what price would you place on cashews, almonds, macadamias, strawberries and avocadoes? Among many others, these crops rely on bees for pollination.  In fact, around one in three bites of the food we eat owe its existence to bees, which is why it is a concern to learn that bee populations around the world are in trouble.

Bees on a frame

Healthy bees at work

Enter Destructive Varroa

Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) is in all beekeeping countries except ours. These sesame-seed-sized mites attach themselves to bees and suck their haemolymph (insects’ version of blood), making the bee more vulnerable to disease. No country has been able to eradicate Varroa once it’s established.

Varroa has been implicated in collapse of bee colonies. Adult worker bees suddenly leave the hive, dying somewhere else. The colony then falls apart. The underlying cause is often unclear, but devastated hives often contain Varroa mite. This may only be a coincidence, but it’s another reason to keep Australia Varroa mite-free as long as possible. Colony collapse has become a major problem – particularly in the US.

The good news is we’re unaffected – so far. The bad news is that when (and it is when, not if) Varroa mite arrives in Australia, local bees haven’t been exposed to it, so they’re extremely susceptible. There have already been a couple of scares in 2012. Varroa-carrying bees were found living in the loading cranes of a ship berthed off Sydney.

Bee pupae infected with Varroa mite

Varroa mite on bee pupae

Australia is currently free of Varroa mite but not of Asian honey bees which is their natural host. We’re already on alert, which is why horticultural industries, the honeybee industry and the Australian Government created a National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, managed nationally by Plant Health Australia.

Unfortunately no amount of surveillance can guarantee pests are kept out, so an early warning system is necessary.

The most likely entry point for Varroa mite is through Australia’s east coast ports, especially from vessels from New Zealand and South-East Asia.

The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program now has 126 sentinel hives. These are hives of healthy European honey bees that are placed at high-risk locations, an average of six per location. These hives are tested every two months using mite-killing chemicals, to provide early detection for Varroa mites and another major honey bee pest, Tropilaelaps mites that could be carried by exotic bees on a ship or in the cargo. Samples of bees are taken from sentinel hives every two months.

But how do they know which ports to put the hives at? Enter data analytics.

The shipping news

Working out the best sites for the hives involved taking multiple data sets containing details on exotic bee interceptions, ships involved, ports of origin, destinations and types of cargo carried.

We used a technique called random effects modelling, a way of drawing out the relevant information when the precise characteristics of the members of the dataset– in this case the cargo, the last country of call and arrival port– are not all the same and difficult to quantify.

We started with shipping data. There is comprehensive information on those vessels that have arrived in Australia, when and from where. We matched this with records of exotic bee interceptions – sometimes on vessels, in machinery, or nesting on the outside of containers at ports.  We then collected maps and aerial pictures of all Australian ports, to produce models of potential bee habitats. To know what to put into the models, we had to find out how far bees can swarm (5km maximum for Asian honey bees and 2km for European honey bees). We also had to learn how long a vessel would need to be in port for bees to find a place to swarm to. If there isn’t enough time for scout bees to find a suitable site or a second set of bees to visit and ‘approve’ it, the colony will not swarm. That’s also assuming it has a queen and is a genuine swarm. This was not always possible to establish with confidence from the interception data.

Some ports with desert or industrial areas nearby ports were ruled out because they have no habitat suitable for honey bees that are within swarming range. This also ruled out ports where the berthing location is relatively distant from the coast.

Data were then assessed to establish what cargo came to the more ‘bee-hospitable’ ports, where the vessels arrived from and how long the voyage had been. Voyages of 300 days or longer were excluded on the basis that the bees wouldn’t survive a trip of that length.

The country of origin and type of cargo are also important considerations. Asian honey bees in particular like to nest in nooks in machinery which is subsequently shipped as cargo. These bees are less keen on – perhaps unsurprisingly – the barren hulls of empty vessels.

Asian honey bees

Asian honey bees

All this information and consideration have combined to produce a surveillance system that is likely to use resources effectively as possible and head off exotic and infected bees before they do any damage.

So, next time you’re enjoying a handful of almonds, spare a thought for the bees that pollinated it and for the data analysis that goes into keeping those bees healthy.


Tiny technology creates a buzz

Bee with sensor

Bee with a backpack… of the sensor variety.

By Adam Harper

What if I told you that insects in the environment may be able to tell us about the world they live in? Imagine it; they could reveal changes in climate, the presence of dangerous gases or even the arrival of pests. Now you might think this a flight of fancy and tell me to buzz off, but this may not be so far from reality.

Our new research project is using tiny sensors that act like your car’s e-tag and attaching them to the backs of honey bees.

What the?

You heard right –  bees with a chip on their shoulder, or on their back at least.

These tiny 2.5mm x 2.5mm chips relay data to recorders placed around hives and known food sources. We’re not talking about one or two wired up insects here, 5,000 tags are currently being attached to honey bees in Hobart and released into the natural environment.

And why would our researchers do that?

Collecting bee movement information at this scale is a world first and will allow researchers to generate a four dimensional model (three dimensions over time) of bee behavior and the way these insects move through the landscape. This information is needed on a global scale as wild honey bee populations are  dropping drastically or vanishing all together. In some instances this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s a case of Colony Collapse Disorder, which is believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.

CSIRO’s Dr Paulo de Souza leads the project and talks about why it is so important to protect these often feared insects.

“Honey bees play an extremely important role in our daily lives. Around one third of the food we eat relies on pollination and this is a free service these insects provide. A recent CSIRO study showed that honey bees helped increase faba bean yield by up to 17 per cent. Knowing how bees interact with their environment will allow farmers, fruit growers and seed producers to manage their properties using honey bees to increase productivity,” says Dr de Souza.

Man holding bee hive

Dr Paulo with his beloved bees.

The research is also looking at the impacts of farm pesticides on honey bees and how much these chemicals contribute to CCD. Healthy bees means healthy landscapes.

Tagging the bees is only the first stage in the project. The next requires us to make the sensors even smaller, down to the size of a grain of sand so they can be used on smaller insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies.

“We also want these smaller tags to be able to sense environmental conditions such as temperature and presence of atmospheric gases; not just track their location.”

“Further to this the sensors will be able to generate energy from the beating wings of the insects, which will give the sensors enough power to transmit information instead of just storing it until they reach a data logger,” says Dr De Souza.

In short, insects will be real-time ‘swarm sensing’ at a scale never before achieved. Insects could become the canaries of the mines or the sniffer dogs of the airports. Bring on the buzz.

***

Media: Emma Pyers, +61 3 5227 5123 emma.pyers (at) csiro.au


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