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Dental floss is used to tie a small radio tracker to an Asian giant hornet near Blaine, Wash. (WSDA Photo)

A researcher from the University of Washington, using tiny technology, has been playing a big role in helping state entomologists tackle a giant problem. Giant hornets, in fact.

The Washington Department of Agriculture finally located a nest of Asian giant hornets — or “murder hornets” — near Blaine, Wash., this week and did so by trapping a few of the insects alive and then tagging them with lightweight radio trackers.

Vikram Iyer. (UW Photo / Mark Stone)

Vikram Iyer, a PhD student at the University of Washington, works in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering’s Networks and Mobile Systems Lab under the direction of Associate Professor Shyam Gollakota. His research focuses on wireless technologies including the development of bio-inspired and bio-integrative wireless sensors.

Iyer, who was a GeekWire Geek of the Week this summer, has used his work to attach a small wireless camera to the back of a beetle and to develop tiny sensors that can be dropped from moths. That technology was used on two tracking attempts of the hornets, in which scientists were able to tag and follow the insects, but ultimately lost them before finding a nest.

Leveraging those lessons, a larger, commercial product not developed at the UW was used on a murder hornet that led to the location of the nest this week.

“We learned a lot this time about how to attach the trackers,” Iyer told GeekWire, adding that a dental floss noose holding the device around the hornet did the trick. They also learned how the hornets behave and a rough idea of how fast they fly. While Iyer’s work focuses on how to significantly reduce the size and weight of the wireless attachments, the giant hornets had no issues flying with the larger commercial devices.

“[Thursday] I wasn’t able to make it up there but the group tried slightly larger radios with longer battery life,” Iyer said. “They followed a hornet back close to the same property where we lost it last week and noticed some insects flying into a hole in a tree which turned out to be the nest. A bit of a surprise considering we were expecting an underground nest.”

An Asian giant hornet feeds on strawberry jam after being tagged with a radio tracker. (WSDA Photo)

The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest species of hornet. The first-ever sightings occurred in the U.S. in December in Northwest Washington state. The hornets are known to attack and destroy honeybee hives during a “slaughter phase” where they kill bees by decapitating them. WSDA said it planned to eradicate the nest on Saturday. Update: Here are photos and videos from the eradication process:

Keep reading for more murder hornet tagging-and-tracking insight from Iyer:

GeekWire: Tell us more about the technology you used and how it works.

Iyer: “The trackers that we have been making are based on small Bluetooth compatible sensors. The way it works is the little device has the chip, a battery, and antenna on it and works kind of like those bluetooth trackers you can attach to your keys. They send out radio signals and based on how strong they are at the receiver you can estimate how close you are. They can run for a little over 12 hours on a single battery charge. The great thing about being compatible with Bluetooth is that also means that anyone can receive the signal on a smartphone.

“On our second tracking attempt, folks living in the community were interested in helping out so I showed them how to download a free phone app that would show the tracker signal. This really helped when we lost the signal for a second and a woman saw it on her phone flying away from us and we were able to find it again. In addition to just smartphones, you can extend the range by using a more directional antenna — think something that looks like a small satellite dish. We built a few of these that could connect to a phone that would plot a graph of the signal strength in real time.

“The other cool thing about this approach is it’s programmable and we can interface sensors with it. We also included a temperature sensor onboard that might help figure out when the animal was in a nest since their nests tend to be warm ( around 90 degrees F).”

Chris Looney, lead entomologist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, tracks an Asian giant hornet. (WSDA Photo)

GW: Did you think it was going to work?

Iyer: “We were pretty confident the device itself would transmit since we have used this technology for a few other projects in the lab, and were optimistic about the approach itself, since aside from plotting out sightings on a map, there aren’t a lot of great ways to locate a nest. Of course, as we have learned when dealing with live insects, you never quite know what to expect. Would it fly? What’s the best way to attach it? I mean, chasing angry stinging insects through overgrown woods, what could possibly go wrong?”

GW: How do you feel now that it looks like a potentially dangerous nest could be eliminated?

Iyer: “It’s really great they found a nest as the best chance to solve this kind of problem is early before the population can really take a foothold and grow. Since these insects aren’t native to the U.S. they don’t have any natural predators or competition to keep their growth in check and can easily prey on the local bees and wasps. It’s also hard to use other methods like pesticides as they would kill other insects like bees as well, so we are glad that we now have another approach to deal with this problem.”

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