Tag Archives: bee

Popular pesticides are killing of bumblebees by preventing them from laying eggs

More and more studies add evidence to a bleak theory: our pesticides are killing off the bees.

bee bumblebee pesticide

The Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Image credits: Alvesgaspar.

Pesticides vs bees

Bumblebees don’t get nearly as much love as honey bees, but maybe they should. Sure they’re wild and they don’t produce as much honey as their “domestic” counterparts, but they help pollinate numerous fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers. Bumblebee species are declining in Europe, North America, and Asia due to a number of factors — including habitat degradation, pathogens, and pesticide use. Now, a new study analyzed the latter factor, focusing on popular pesticides called neonicotinoids, and what they found isn’t pretty, as NPR puts it. The pesticides apparently deter bumblebee queens from laying eggs.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that emerged in the 1990s. Compared to some of their predecessors, they cause less toxicity in birds and mammals. However, in recent years, they’ve come under increasing scrutiny due to their environmental impact, especially on bees and other benign insects. Neonics (as they’re also called) are systemic and move throughout growing plants. This means that traces of the pesticide reach the pollen, which the bees consume. Quite often, neonics have been found in areas that haven’t been treated, such as meadows or wildflower patches.

Because they spread so much, the impact they have on bees is far reaching and hard to thoroughly assess — yet a growing number of studies associated these pesticides with honeybee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. While these findings remain controversial, in 2013, the European Union (and some other non-EU countries) banned the use of such pesticides, and positive results were visible fast. The ban is only temporary for now, but the EU is considering making it permanent despite complaints from pesticide companies and some farmers which claim yields have gone down.

For most of the world, neonics are still going strong, and both bees and bumblebees are paying a huge price.

Bumbling around

For the study, researchers from the Royal Holloway University of London set up an experiment involving bumblebee queens. They fed the queens a syrup which contained traces of a neonicotinoid called thiamethoxam, similarly to what a queen would be exposed to in real life.

bee bumblebee pesticides

Honeybees and bumblebees are threatened by neonicotinoids alike. Image credits: Jon Sullivan.

These queens were 26% less likely to lay eggs when they were exposed to thiamethoxam. This isn’t saying that the population would only decline by 26% — but when they modeled the impact of this 26% decrease, they found a significantly increased likelihood of population extinction.

“Without the queen laying eggs, there is no colony,” says Nigel Raine, one of the scientists who conducted the experiment. Raine helped start the experiment, but has since moved to the University of Guelph in Canada.

The problem is that the pesticide exposure is impacting bumblebee populations in conjunction with other factors, such as inadequate resources or pathogens. It’s difficult to say just how much of an effect all these stresses working together will have, but so far, it seems to be devastating.

Bumblebees are in danger in many developed countries and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that pesticides are at least partly to blame.

“Bees play a vital role as pollinators in both agricultural and natural systems. However, there is increasing concern about the state of wild bee populations. Nearly 10% of European bee species are currently considered threatened and bumblebees are declining on a global scale. The cause of these declines is thought to be a combination of factors, particularly habitat loss, parasites and diseases, invasive species, and climate change,” researchers conclude.

Journal Reference: Gemma L. Baron, Vincent A. A. Jansen, Mark J. F. Brown & Nigel E. Raine — Pesticide reduces bumblebee colony initiation and increases probability of population extinction. doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0260-1

Bees prefer rural flowers to urban ones, new study indicates

When given the choice, bees tend to opt for blossoms in the rural areas, forgoing those in urban sites.

Carniolan honey bee (Apis mellifera carnica). Image via Wiki Commons.

A team from Ohio State University positioned several honey bee colonies in a central Ohio cemetery smack in the middle of where urban residential development transitions into farmland. They were careful to place the hives in an area that would make it equally accessible for both urban and rural plants and then, they simply left the bees on their own, to fend for themselves, studying which flowers the bees opted for.

The bees always seemed to prefer the rural flowers and at one point, flowers opted for rural polen 96% of the time. Rather interestingly, they did so regardless of the flower diversity that was presented to them.

“Honey bees didn’t seem to care that much what the floral diversity was. What they wanted was large patches of their favorite stuff,” said Sponsler, who now works at Penn State University.

What’s interesting about this study is that it challenges the classic belief that farmlands don’t do anything to help the bees. While the agricultural plants themselves are of no interest to bees, the countryside generally features wide swaths of unmowed wild plants (which we commonly know as weeds) on the side of fields and roads. These weeds can feed the bees much better than urban options — at least that’s what the bees themselves seem to think.

“When the bees have a choice, they go to the farmland. We’ve had trouble keeping our urban colonies alive, so this makes a lot of sense to us,” Johnson said. There’s this popular perception that urban places are better for bees because of the diversity of plants. This is showing that, at least in Ohio, the agricultural areas are actually superior and that’s despite the pesticide use that’s out there,” he said.”Apparently, farmland isn’t desolate at all — at least not for honey bees.”

Goldenrod, often regarded as a common weed, can be a trove of nectar for honeybees. Image credits: Rooster613 / Wikipedia.

In order to reach this conclusion, researchers first tracked the tell-tale dance patterns of bees returning from foraging. These dances can give a good indication of the direction in which the bees were foraging, as well as the distance from the hive. In other words, you can get a pretty good idea where the bee was foraging without actually following it.

“These things can be pretty easily decoded by the human observer, thankfully. You can map the locations that are being referred to in the dance,” Sponsler said.

Secondly, they carried out a more direct analysis. Namely, they looked through the bees’ collection. Whenever the bees would return from some scouting or foraging, they would walk through a screen that allowed their body to pass through but scraped some of the pollen. The researchers carefully collected this pollen and analyzed it to see what plant it comes from. As it turns out, Goldenrod was the most popular plant in the area – again, a plant that commonly grows on wild fields or on the side of the road.

The research offers some valuable indication for urban bee growers. Bee populations worldwide are dwindling, and especially in urban areas, the insects are highly threatened. The takeaway is pretty simple: if you want to keep a healthy beehive, you should supplement their diet. Planting certain trees, for instance, can produce very high amounts of nectar, as can flowers. After all, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have some flowers on our fields, is there?

“There’s no reason why our urban landscapes cannot be full of flowers. It’s just that we’ve inherited a certain preference toward things that look like golf courses rather than things that look like prairies.”

Journal Reference: Douglas B. Sponsler, Emma G. Matcham, Chia-Hua Lin, Jessie L. Lanterman, Reed M. Johnson. Spatial and taxonomic patterns of honey bee foraging: A choice test between urban and agricultural landscapes. Journal of Urban Ecology, 2017; 3 (1) DOI: 10.1093/jue/juw008

Football-playing bees exhibit complex learning

Researchers have trained bumblebees to score goals using a mini-ball. This highlights an unexpected and unprecedented ability of the insects to learn new, complex tasks.

Footballing bees are much smarter than you think. Credit: Copyright Iida LoukolaClose

Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) works at the intersection between sensory physiology, learning psychology, and evolutionary ecology. He previously showed something very interesting about bees — that they too get false memories. Honeybees and bumblebees rely on scent, taste, and color to find food (nectar), so they map this sensory information for later use, but they don’t always get it right. Just like us, sometimes they make mistakes and sometimes they get lost. Now, Chittka and his colleagues wanted to see how bees can react to a completely new situation and how they learn to adapt to it. Again, they found similarities to us.

“We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees,” said Dr Clint Perry, joint lead author and also from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

They trained bees to play football to get some delicious food. The first stage of the training was to show the bees how to identify and find the ball. After that, they had to move the ball to another location. The bees were split into three groups. Some of them watched a previously trained bee accomplish the task, the second group watched a “phantom demonstration” (a magnet moving the ball around), while the third group received no information at all. They simply had to figure it out — which they did, even though the first two groups had an easier time learning the task. But the most impressive feat was that they kicked the ball in a different way than they were taught, indicating that they had an understanding of what they were doing and not merely copying what they had seen. Joint lead author Dr Olli J. Loukola, said:

“The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it. This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”

During the initial demonstrations, researchers used a single ball, but after a while, they used three balls, sometimes of varying colors. The bees always chose the ball that was closest to the center (where they had to bring it), showing that they were actively trying to ease their tasks. Even when this involved walking backward (when the demonstrator bee had walked forward), they still preferred the closest ball. Scientists weren’t really expecting them to learn so quickly and effectively but this may be due to the fact that we haven’t really seen bees under mental pressure. Dr Loukola added:

“It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviours.”

Another interesting takeaway from this study is that you don’t really need a big brain to be smart. Tool usage (especially unnatural tool usage) is a hallmark of cognitive complexity abilities. At one point in the past, tool use was ascribed to humans alone, then was extended to primates, next to marine animals, and later to birds. It seems pretty clear that we have to extend this to insects as well. Lars Chittka concludes:

“Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities.”

Journal Reference: Olli J. Loukola, Clint J. Perry, Louie Coscos, Lars Chittka — Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior. Science, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360

Bumblebee becomes the first endangered bee in continental US

For the first time in history, a bee in continental US has been listed as endangered: the rusty patched bumblebee.

Image credits: Steve Evans from Citizen of the World.

Bees all around the world are going through a dramatic decline, largely due to the effect of pesticides causing a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Two decades ago, the rusty patched bumblebee would have been a common sight in the US but now, it’s endangered with numbers declining in 87% of its historical habitat range.

The proposal was first made in September 2016 and was just now implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. Discussing this decision, Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said,

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline.”

It’s truly heartbreaking to see such a staple species nearing extinction – and the bumblebee isn’t the only one. Several other bees and pollinators are facing similar issues, although they haven’t yet been listed as endangered. These pollinating species play a key role in their ecosystem, and their demise brings with it incalculable costs. For economically important crops such as tomatoes, cranberries, and peppers alone, it’s estimated that pollinators provide environmental services of $3 billion in the US alone. Bumblebees are especially good pollinators and even plants that self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by bumble bees.

“The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators – including the monarch butterfly – experiencing serious declines across the country,” Melius said. “Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

The reasons for the decline of the bumblebee are already classic:

  • loss of habitat;
  • disease and parasites;
  • use of pesticides that directly or indirectly kill the bees;
  • climate change, which can affect the availability of the flowers they depend on.

Aside from what officials do, the general public can also take measures to help pollinators. Planting local, native flowers, even in small urban areas can do wonders for the tiny pollinators. The use of pesticides should also be avoided, if possible (or at least limited). Foster natural landscapes and leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advises:

“Grow flowers, including flowering trees and shrubs. Have a mix with something in bloom from early spring through fall. Include native milkweeds for monarch butterflies.

Bumble bees and many other pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) need a safe place to build their nests and overwinter. Leave some areas of your yard unmowed in summer and unraked in fall, in your garden and flower beds leave some standing plant stems in winter.

Provide a pesticide free environment.”

Scientists find a new way through which neonicotinoids are killing off bees

Bee populations are going down dramatically, and our insecticides are largely at blame.

Bees are extremely important pollinators. Photo by Louise Docker

Human beekeeping has been practiced for millennia, but in recent years, bees worldwide have been in dire straits. In 2012 alone, a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) wiped out about half of honeybee hives [read more here]. In CCD, worker bees basically go away from the hive and never return. We don’t yet know for sure why this happens, but there is a strong link with the intensive use of pesticides.

Pesticides can either kill bees or drive them crazy and now, a team has found that pesticides also threaten their breeding

The new study, conducted by researchers from scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports. It details how neonicotinoids are greatly reducing the queens’ ability to lay eggs. Because bees can only reproduce through queens, this means that when the queen suffers, the entire colony suffers.

“The queens are… the only reproductive individual laying eggs in the colony,” said lead author Judy Wu-Smart. “If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn’t (immediately) noticeable, but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony.”

“One queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs a day. If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn’t (immediately) noticeable but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony.”

Wu-Smart and her colleague, the University of Minnesota’s Marla Spivak, assessed colonies populated by 1,500, 3,000 and 7,000 honey bees, finding yet another unwanted side effect of pesticides. Bees affected by pesticides stored far less pollen, which they convert into a “bee bread” that provides crucial protein for recently hatched larvae. So not only are pesticide-affected bees creating fewer offspring, but they’re also not feeding them properly.

Image via University at Nebraska-Lincoln

“In many of these cases, we want to figure out why these colonies are dwindling when they should be at their peak production. This is providing some of that insight. It’s not answering all the questions, but it’s definitely something to consider.”

While queens in larger colonies are less likely to be affected, bees in small colonies are especially vulnerable.

“What we can say is that smaller colonies tend to be more vulnerable, because the queens are more likely to become exposed,” Wu-Smart said. “When we look at our general beekeeping practices, the early spring is when colonies are at their smallest size. They’re coming out of winter, and a lot of them are naturally smaller.”

Banning or regulating pesticides

Farmers are very quick to use pesticides, and rarely consider the effect they are having on the environment. This is why there is a heated debate about banning some pesticides which do most damage to bees and other pollinators. Italy did this in 2012 and reported excellent results, and the US is also in the process of banning some neonicotinoids.

But Wu-Smart said she doesn’t consider banning neonicotinoids a practical step in protecting honey bee colonies, instead advocating for regulating insecticide-treated seeds the same way the industry does with sprays and other application techniques.

“When you spray a pesticide, you have to consider things like wind and temperature to reduce drift,” she said. “You can’t aerial-spray on a windy day. With seed-treated products, there is no label telling (growers) that it’s been treated with an insecticide. There is no restriction as to when you can plant.

“When we do a lot of the extension outreach and talking to growers, many of them are unaware that this is even a problem. So just having that label on the bag saying that planting these seed treatments on a windy day could potentially cause some effects on bees could be useful.”

It’s a complex process with no clear answer, but one thing’s for sure: if we don’t do something fast, millions and millions of bees will suffer.

Journal Reference: Sub-lethal effects of dietary neonicotinoid insecticide exposure on honey bee queen fecundity and colony development. doi:10.1038/srep32108

perching robot

Flying quarter-sized RoboBee perches to save energy

perching robot

Credit: Harvard // YouTube

Harvard roboticists made an insect-like flying robot that perches on ceilings to save energy, like bats, birds or butterflies. To ‘rest’ on these surfaces, the RoboBee uses electrostatic adhesion instead of sticky adhesives or latching with talons, but works just as well.

“Many applications for small drones require them to stay in the air for extended periods,” said Moritz Graule, a researcher at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “Unfortunately, smaller drones run out of energy quickly. We want to keep them aloft longer without requiring too much additional energy.”

Sticky electricity

For their delicate flying RoboBee, no bigger than a quarter coin, it made more sense to use an electrode patch that electrostatically ‘sticks’ to a surface than anything fancy with moving parts. You’ve seen it work all the time when you rub a wool sweater to a balloon, for instance.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”What is static electricity?” footer=””]When two different materials come into close contact, for example, felt rubbing against a balloon or two air masses in a storm cloud, electrons may be transferred from one material to the other.

When this happens, one material ends up with an excess of electrons and becomes negatively charged, while the other ends up with a deficiency of electrons and becomes positively charged.

This accumulation of imbalanced charges on objects results in the phenomena we commonly refer to as static electricity. [/panel]

When wool is rubbed against a balloon, the latter becomes negatively charged. If you then bring the balloon close to a wall, it will stick. This works for only a little while, though, since the charge dissipates over the time.

Robo Bee

Image by Peter Allen/Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

This is why the Harvard researchers pumped a small amount of energy into the electrode to keep the negative charge going. Yes, this requires power, but makes flying more efficient in the long run. The patch required 1,000 times less power to perch than typically required to hover, the researchers write in the journal Science.

“One of the biggest advantages of this system is that it doesn’t cause destabilizing forces during disengagement, which is crucial for a robot as small and delicate as ours,” said Graule.

“When making robots the size of insects, simplicity and low power are always key constraints,” said senior author of the study,  Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

Because the electrode is only attached to the top of the robotic bee, the flying gizmo can only attach itself to ceilings. An upcoming version should be able to stick to any surface.

Bees get much needed win as US court rules against neonicotinoid pesticide

It’s been a very rough period for bees. Bee numbers have been dropping at alarming rates, and the growing consensus seem to be that only limiting pesticide use (especially for some pesticides) can save them. Now, a US court overturned federal approval for a new formulation called sulfoxaflor, basically banning the pesticide.

Pesticides killing bees

Image via Discover Magazine.

The main problem is with neonicotinoids – a class of neuro-active substances linked with a swarm of negative environmental effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Sulfoxaflor is a neonicotinoid; on May 6, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency approved the first two commercial pesticide products that contain sulfoxaflor, marketed under the brand names “Transform” and “Closer”, to the Dow Chemical Corporation. However, the decision was appealed and now, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling overturning the EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor, finding that the EPA had relied on “flawed and limited” data, and its green light was unjustified given the “precariousness of bee populations”.

Circuit judge Randy Smith said:

“I am inclined to believe the EPA… decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retrospectively with studies it had previously found inadequate.”

This decision can also be appealed.

Neonicotinoids have grown popular for protecting crops and orchards from unwanted pests, but in recent years, there has been increasing evidence that they also damage pollinators and disrupt their navigation systems, with major impacts worldwide.

Neonicotinoid pesticides can disrupt bee navigation (Image: Zhang Bo/Getty)

Striking contradictions

The strange thing about the legality of neonicotinoids is that the European Union banned most of them in 2013, as part of an effort to protect bees. An even larger investigation on banning more pesticides will be launched this autumn. However, last month, the EU approved the use of sulfoxaflor, while leaving final decisions on its use to national regulators, despite the European Food Standards Authority warning that “missing information” about sulfoxaflor meant that “a high risk to bees was not excluded”. Meanwhile, in the US, most neonicotinoids are still allowed for use, but sulfoxaflor has been banned. This creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.

“The public will be justifiably confused and concerned,” says Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife, a British group that campaigns against neonicotinoids.

Answering Questions

The lead attorney on the above mentioned lawsuit challenging the EPA’s approval of the pesticide sulfoxaflor took the time to answer some questions on Reddit. Here are some of the most interesting insights:

Question: What can the average person do to help bees?

Answer: First off, when buying ornamental plants for your home garden, make sure that they don’t come pre-treated with neonics. Unfortunately, many big nurseries are still selling flowers that are sprayed with neonics.

Q: Why do you have to say in response the NPR article basically saying everything is fine and the numbers reported don’t really tell the story at all?

A: First, we cannot expect native pollinators to stand in for commercially kept honeybees. Native bees are great, but where are we going to find the 1.5 million colonies it takes just to pollinate California’s almond crop each January? Second, every indication is that native bees have been taking it in the ear as well, and that’s a huge environmental impact in its own right.

Q: Thanks a lot for fighting the good fight, my question is how much other stuff needs to be removed to save bees in your opinion?

A: The hope is that we will eventually find a way to get off the toxic treadmill of evermore reliance on pesticides. It’s a social change, and it’s not going to happen on its own. It’s going to take commitment and real action on the part of government, corporate America, and all of us.

Q: What is going to replace neonicotinoids? Is the alternative better or worse for bees and farmers?

The hope is that we will eventually find a way to get off the toxic treadmill of evermore reliance on pesticides. It’s a social change, and it’s not going to happen on its own. It’s going to take commitment and real action on the part of government, corporate America, and all of us.

Q: What do you think will really happen if bees go extinct?

A: The reality is that commercial beekeepers will go extinct (read, bankrupt) long before honeybees. But the impact on agriculture and our diet will be essentially the same, because many of our most important crops absolutely require commercially kept bees for pollination. Agriculture as we know it just wouldn’t be possible without commercial beekeepers.


Bees use natural vaccines for their youth

When it comes to vaccines, the young bees don’t really have a choice – they’re naturally immunized against specific diseases commonly found in their environment. For the first time, researchers have figured out just how they do it.

Busy Bee

Researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and Norwegian University of Life Sciences made the discovery after they studied a bee blood protein called vitellogenin (VTG). VTG, an egg yolk precursor protein, is expressed in the females of nearly all oviparous species. VTG provides the proteins that are a source of nutrients during early development of egg-laying (oviparous) vertebrates and invertebrates. For bees, vitellogenin molecules are deposited in fat bodies in their abdomen and heads. The fat bodies apparently act as a food storage reservoir. Now, scientists report that it also plays a key role in protecting baby bees against diseases.

“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now. What we found is that it’s as simple as eating,” said Gro Amdam, a professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences and co-author of the paper. “Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin. This exemplifies how long-term investments in basic research pay off.”

The process may be simple, but identifying its underlying mechanism was anything but – it took 10 years to figure it out. Co-author Dalial Freitak, a postdoctoral researcher with University of Helsinki adds:

“I have been working on bee immune priming since the start of my doctoral studies. Now almost 10 years later, I feel like I’ve solved an important part of the puzzle. It’s a wonderful and very rewarding feeling!”

How it works, and why it matters


Each honey bee colony has only one queen, and she almost never leaves the nest, so the workers have to bring food to her. But the pollen that is used to create the “royal jelly” that the queen eats can also contain bacteria and pathogens picked up by the workers in the outside world. So when the queen eats it, the pathogens are transferred to her body, and pieces of bacteria are bound to VTG, and are also carried to the eggs. Unwillingly, the young bees are naturally vaccinated and protected from a swarm of diseases that might harm them.

Unfortunately though, there are still many diseases against which bees aren’t protected – but the good thing is that now that researchers understand how “bee vaccines” work, they can develop actual vaccines to protect the insects.

“We are patenting a way to produce a harmless vaccine, as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat. They would then be able to stave off disease,” said Freitak.

During the past six decades, managed honey bee colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million today; and recently, their numbers are dwindling more and more. Despite ongoing research and efforts, there is no definite solution against the problems they are facing. To make things even worse, colony collapse disorder is destroying beehives at an unprecedented level.

Pollinators (especially bees) are instrumental for a healthy economy and critical to food security, contributing 35 percent of global food production. We depend on bees, and we’re not taking care of them properly. Developing a synthetic, cheap bee vaccine could be huge.

“Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement. It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans,” said Amdam.

The findings appear today in the journal PLOS Pathogens.



Pollinating Bees are Worth Billions, and We’re Still Not Protecting Them

Wild bees provide environmental services worth $3,250 (€2,880) per hectare per year – accounting for billions, globally. Writing in Nature Communications, study authors quantify how much bees are doing for us, and stress that despite all their immense value, we still don’t have a concrete plan to stop their numbers from dwindling.

Image via Fabulous Arizona.

We’ve written extensively on the situation of bees – their numbers are dropping fast, and we still don’t know exactly why (it’s probably a combination of pesticide use, destruction of habitats, climate change and parasitic infections). Scientists have raised alarm signals about this since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. Today, most bee species are in decline, with annual regional losses as high as 60 percent. When you consider that it’s not just about saving bees, it’s also about the services bees do for us, one can only ask: “Are we doing enough?”.

[Also Read: Bees make blue honey after eating M&Ms]

In this study, researchers followed the activities of nearly 74,000 bees from more than 780 wild species. They found that on average, wild bees contribute $3,251 per hectare ($1,315 per acre) to crop production, even more than “domestic” bees, which were worth $2,913 per hectare. The study helps put a “dollar figure” over an environmental service which is usually hard to estimate.

But not all bees are as useful – researchers were surprised to learn that 2% of wild bee species, the most common types, fertilise about 80% of bee-pollinated crops worldwide. In this way, bees are like football players.

“There are a few who really make a lot of money, like (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi, then another large group who can make a living from football. And then there’s 99.9 percent who just play for fun,” said lead author David Kleijn, of Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands.

The rest, while still crucial for their local ecosystem, were not as involved in agricultural crops, but authors stress that their protection is just as important.

“Rare and threatened species may play a less significant role economically than common species, but this does not mean their protection is less important,” said David Kleijn, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who led the study.

Image via Myrmecos

The research also focused on bee populations in the UK, and reports that 85 per cent of the UK’s apple crop and 45 per cent of the strawberry crop relies on bees to grow. Alone those two crops brought in £200 million to Britain in 2012. The UK is considering drastically reducing or eliminating pesticides to protect bee populations.

“Hundreds of thousands of us are asking why the government is even considering allowing harmful pesticides back on British fields. We’re calling for Environment Minister Liz Truss and the government to keep the ban on bee-killing pesticides, with no exceptions. “If we want future generations to be able to eat home-grown strawberries and Bramley apples, we have to keep bee-killing pesticides off our land.”

All in all, the science is consistent on this one – we need to find a way to protect bees; for their sake, and for ours.

“Crucially, the commonest wild bees are the most important, which gives us the ‘win-win’ situation where relatively cheap and easy conservation measures can support these and give maximum benefit for the crops,” said Pat Willmer, a professor of biology at Scotland’s University of St Andrews. “For example, planting wild flowers with wider grassy margins around crops, as well as less intensive or more organic farming, all enhance abundance of the key crop-visiting bees,” he told Britain’s Science Media Centre (SMC).

Watch: The first 21 days of a bee’s life in stunning timelapse

As part of a recent TED Talk (presented at the bottom of this article) photographer Anand Varma captured the incredible 21 day transformation from bee egg to larvae to pupae to adult, all in a breathtaking one-minute time-lapse video:

In order to construct this time-lapse, Varma raised bees in his backyard, in front of a camera. His effort is part of a National Geographic program, called ‘Building Bees‘, which gives an insight into how life is in a beehive, and highlights one of the biggest dangers bees face: a mite that preys on baby bees in the first 21 days of life. Bee numbers are dropping at alarming rates in many areas of the world, with no clear reason in sight. The likely cause is a mixture of numerous factors, including habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and of course, pesticide use.

For more information, read:

Image via National Geographic.

Pesticide limit may be the last resort to save the bees, White House says

With bee numbers dropping dramatically in the last years, it’s time to take some drastic measures, and a White House task force including participation from more than a dozen federal agencies has concluded that limiting pesticide use may be the last resort we have to maintain bee numbers.

Image via Eco Watch.

The humble bee plays a key role in agriculture; in the US alone, they provide environmental services through pollination estimated at $10-15 billion every year, according to the USDA.. If bees continue to vanish at these rates, then we can expect anything from rising prices in common foods to actual food shortages – it’s high time some drastoc measures are taken.

But there are even more reasons to worry – if bee populations are collapsing and we don’t know why, how long will it be before something else collapses? John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, said in an interview that they are concerned about the “canary in the coal mine” phenomenon.

“If honeybee colonies are collapsing for a reason we don’t understand, what is that telling us about our overall impacts and understanding of the ecosystems on which we depend?”

While there are many elements factoring into the bees’ demise, pesticides were deemed the main culprit by most studies.

“Mitigating the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture,” the report said. “These complex considerations mandate care in all pesticide application.”

The strategy they are proposing will also monitor the way in which forests burned by wildfire are replanted, the way offices are landscaped and the way roadside habitats where bees feed are preserved. The destruction of their natural habitats is another one of the major problems. The plan calls for restoring 7 million acres of bee habitat in the next five years.

The report also highlights the fact that we don’t yet understand what is happening to bee populations, so they recommend an investment of $82.5 million in bee research. This has been hailed by people working in agriculture as well as biologists. After all, for all the work that bees put, and all the benefits we yield from that, it’s about time we started a major project to protect them.

“I have to say that it is mighty darn lovely having the White House acknowledge the indigenous, unpaid and invisible workforce that somehow has managed to sustain all terrestrial life without health-care subsidies, or a single COLA, for that past 250 million years,” said Sam Droege, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist and one of the country’s foremost experts on native bee identification.


Bee numbers dropping at incredible rates

Something is killing off the bees; it’s likely us, and we’ll all have to pay the price. In fact, in many areas of the world, we already are.

Total annual loss (%) 2014-2015 by state. Respondents who managed colonies in more than one state had all of their colonies counted in each state in which they reported managing colonies. Data for states with fewer than five respondents are withheld. Steinhauer et al, 2015.


“If you’ve ever eaten a strawberry or a blueberry, you ought to thank a bee,” comments Toni Burnham, the president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association.

Something’s killing the bees

The statistics are extremely disturbing; beekeepers in the U.S. lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies in just one year, between April 2014 and April 2015. This is just an analysis of the preliminary results, but the emerging trend is already worrying. It’s normal to lose some beehives, it happens every year, but the destruction of bee hives is not slowing down – it’s accelerating.

“Beekeepers do not only lose colonies in the winter but also throughout the summer, sometimes at significant levels. Responding beekeepers reported losing 42.1% of the total number of colonies managed over the last year (total annual loss, between April 2014 and April 2015). This represents the second highest annual loss recorded to date,” the report writes.

So what is killing the insects? The answer is complex and involves several factors.

“Since the 1980s, honeybees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides, ” the USDA notes. But deaths began to spike in the middle of the past decade, when a phenomenon in which bees deserted their hives and died en masse – later named colony collapse disorder – began sweeping hives worldwide. “Commercial keepers were particularly prone to summer losses.”

The words that seem to always pop up in this discussion are “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). CCD is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear. Beekeepers throughout the entire world have reported massive rates of CCD in recent years, but the mechanisms still remain unknown. Pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) are the main suspect, but loss of habitat, pollution and infection with various pathogens also likely contribute.

A study that came out in February 2015 concluded:

“Bees of all species are likely to encounter multiple stressors during their lives, and each is likely to reduce the ability of bees to cope with the others. A bee or bee colony that appears to have succumbed to a pathogen may not have died if it had not also been exposed to a sublethal dose of a pesticide and/or been subject to food stress (which might in turn be due to drought or heavy rain induced by climate change, or competition from a high density of honey bee hives placed nearby). Unfortunately, conducting well-replicated studies of the effects of multiple interacting stressors on bee colonies is exceedingly difficult. The number of stressor combinations rapidly becomes large, and exposure to stressors is hard or impossible to control with free-flying bees. Nonetheless, a strong argument can be made that it is the interaction among parasites, pesticides, and diet that lies at the heart of current bee health problems.”

Why we should care

Saving bee colonies is important not only for the bees themselves, but also for us. Something that many people tend to neglect is that as pollinators, bees provide valuable environmental services for agriculture. It’s estimated that in the US alone, pollination services are worth $10 billion to $15 billion a year. The worldwide value is incommensurable.

If bees continue to vanish at these rates, then we can expect anything from rising prices in common foods to actual food shortages. When you consider that some agricultural areas rely almost entirely on bees for pollination, the situation gets even more dire. The first ones who have to take measures are actually the beekeepers.

“As long as beekeepers are willing to put more money and hard labor into it, we can come back and rebuild our colonies and numbers,” explains Dr. Heather Mattila, a honeybee biologist at Wellesley College. “But whether this is all sustainable is an open question.”

But the problem is much bigger than this, and CCD is just another symptom of a larger issue. The way our global agriculture is developed is not sustainable, and we have to make the transition as soon as possible. Otherwise, the bee colony collapse disorder will be just another domino pieces, triggering many other negative changes after it.

Study Reference: Colony Loss 2014 – 2015: Preliminary Results.


Bees have false memories too – this might help explain how our own form

Memories aren’t infallible – even for those with photographic memory – so, more often than not, they’ll seem fuzzy. And the older these get, the fuzzier they’re recalled. Mixing names, faces and events in your head can sometimes be embarrassing, but at least we’re not alone. Seems like bees have false memories too, according to a study made by British researchers at Queen Mary University of London. Previously, false memories had been induced in other animals, like mice, but this is the first time natural false memories have been shown to happen. Research like this might help us, in time, understand how false memories are formed and, in a more general sense, how we recall events.



Honeybees and bumblebees rely on scent, taste and colour to find food (nectar), so they map this sensory information for later use. The researchers trained bees (Bombus terrestris) to go after two types of reward-bearing flowers: solid yellow ones and a variety which flashed rings of black and white. They then introduced other varieties of flowers. 

In the first three days the bees preferred the most recently rewarded stimulus. Later on, however, the bees went for a hybrid made of yellow and white concentric circles. Just 34 percent preferred the merged blooms during the first ten trials, but 50 percent did during the last ten. According to the researchers at the QMUL Bee Sensory and Behavioral Lab, this is indicative of false memory formation. Strikingly, this matches a pattern reminiscent of how humans recall false information. Right after training or shortly after reading an article, for instance, people will rather accurately remember what was it all about. Ask them to perform the task two week later and things will get fuzzy. As such, it’s a matter of long term memory storage and retrieval. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a sign of how flexible our memory is.

“There is no question that the ability to extract patterns and commonalities between different events in our environment [is] adaptive,” Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London says in a press release. “Indeed, the ability to memorize the overarching principles of a number of different events might help us respond in new situations. But these abilities might come at the expense of remembering every detail correctly.”

Findings appeared in Current Biology.

Watch: The Inside of a Huge Wasp Colony

Some wasps decided to build their colony next to the window of Youtube user Vang Tsal. Naturally, he was spooked – wasps are mean, and can be quite difficult to deal with. But instead of panicking and attempting to destroy the hive, he filmed it – and the results are spectacular:

The colony now offers a perfect perspective of wasp life – thankfully, from the safety of the inside of his house.

“Big wasps are building a huge nest in my window,” Tsal writes on his YouTube page. “I can observe its construction in real-time cross-section!”

Pretty incredible, huh? This actually reminds me of a an old episode of BBC’s The One Show, in which host George McGavin, entirely covered by protective gear, enters a wasp colony to document it with a tiny camera.

“What would be really great would be if I could open this up and examine the internal structure,” says McGavin, his voice overlaid atop what is nevertheless some really great footage of the nest’s crowded antechambers. “But there’s so many wasps in there I think it would be a bit dangerous.”

Tsal’s colony cross section offers the best of both worlds! Oh, and he promises that he wouldn’t destroy the colony anytime soon, documenting it as it continues to develop on his Youtube channel.

Neonicotinoid chemicals and bees

Pesticides threaten bees, birds and worms alike

A new study has shown that neurotoxic pesticides blamed for the huge drop in bee numbers are also equally affecting butterflies, worms, fish and birds.

Killing the Bees

Neonicotinoid chemicals and bees

Poor fellows! The decline of bees around the world is increasingly linked with neonicotinoid chemicals.

Analyzing two decades of research on the topic, they found out that two classes of pesticides – neonicotinoids and fipronil – show “clear evidence of harm”.

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment,” said Jean-Marc Bonmatin of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, co-author of the report entitled the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.

These nerve-targeting poisons are supposed to be protecting food security – but that’s really the opposite of what they’re doing in the long run. Bees are responsible for pollinating a huge amount of the global food, and these pesticides are “imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

In case you’re not aware, bee populations are dwindling. All around the world, bee populations are dropping more and more, and until recently, scientists still wasn’t sure why this was happening. Now, even though there isn’t a general consensus, there are very strong indications that it’s pesticides that trigger this drastic reduction in bee numbers. To make things even clearer, in countries which have banned these pesticides, bee numbers are starting to rise again.

More threats

But as huge as the bee damage is, other creatures are threatened just as much by the insecticides. As they seep into the underground or waters, neonics affect freshwater snails and water fleas, then birds, and finally fish, amphibians and certain microbes. They have also been linked with autism.

However, the most damage is done to terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms. We don’t really think about earthworms, because, well, they’re not pretty, and most people don’t see them as useful – but that’s a shallow point of view. Earthworms are crucial in ecosystems, as they provide crucial soil-enrichment and aeration. With dropping worm populations, the local plants will be under even more stress, and the results will be devastating.

“The combination of their widescale use and inherent properties, has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, non-target vegetation, estuarine and coastal marine systems,” the authors wrote.


Bees build mental maps to get home

When I was a kid, I asked, like many others, how do bees know how to make their way back to the hive – and I was told they use the Sun for guidance. But I was lied! A new study has now finally solved my childhoold dilemma: while they do use the Sun as a compass, bees also make some mind maps which help them return home.

Generally speaking, bees, like birds and butterflies use the sun as a compass, while mammals (including humans) tend to find their way by remembering familiar landmarks on a continuous mental map. However, a new study has shown that despite very limited brain size, bees also use this kind of mind map.

“The surprise comes for many people that such a tiny little brain is able to form such a rich memory described as a cognitive map,” says co-author Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin.

The study, which was published today, shows that bees can find their way home even in the absence of the Sun, using mind maps.

Mammals do this every day – including us. No matter where you are in a city, you can generally point towards your home, or towards a landmark in your city.

“They can point to their home generally even though they can’t see it, even along a path through a wall that they haven’t travelled,” explains Fred Dyer, a behavioural biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who was not involved in the research.

In order to test if bees can also do this, researchers drugged them, and gave them an anaesthetic; once they woke up, they thought it was still morning, even though it wasn’t. Researchers left them in a site they were unfamiliar with, and tracked their movements with radars. Initially, the bees went away from the hive – with their internal clocks screwed up, they thought it was morning, and therefore were tricked by the position of the Sun.

 “But then they redirect, ignoring the information from the Sun,” says Menzel. “They refer to something else” — which he and his team think is a cognitive map.

However, Dyer is still not convinced that this is in fact evidence of a mind map. He thinks that the insects could be using features of the terrain independent of the Sun to navigate, similar to the way a mariner might use a beacon. This is not similar to mind maps. Menzel hopes to further details this study, and clearly show if bees do make mind maps or not.

Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15333

Bees make blue honey after eating M&Ms


The difference between normal honey (right), and M&M infused honey.

It’s a tough period to be a bee – even though it’s fairly clear by now that the massive bee wipe-out is caused by pesticides and fungicides, and even though places where such pesticides have been banned report huge increase in bee health, the world is still not taking steps to save the little insects. To put it bluntly, bee numbers are dropping, and they will continue to drop massively unless we actually do something. To add insult to injury, some bees in France have now made blue honey after eating M&Ms from a nearby factory.

French beekepers have found themselves in an extremely unfortunate position when their bees produced honey in different colors than natural. Since August, beekeepers around the town of Ribeauville in the region of Alsace have seen bees returning to their hives carrying unidentified colorful substances, which they used to create honey of extremely unusual colors. Baffled by this behavior and result, they investigated the cause, trying to figure out what the insects were eating.

Their search took them to a biogas plant 4 km (2.5 miles) away – a processing waste from a Mars plant producing M&M’s, bite-sized candies in bright red, blue, green, yellow and brown shells. The honey, of course, is unsellable – for pretty much the same reason M&Ms should be unsellable – it’s extremely unhealthy. Even though it may taste like normal honey, it’s nothing like it.

Colored honey hi

“For me, it’s not honey. It’s not sellable.”- that’s the general idea of beekepers in the region.

The batch of polluted honey makes even more problems for beekepers, creating a financial hole which will be very difficult to fill up.

When contacted, Mars didn’t respond and didn’t make any comment on the situation. Still, Agrivalor, the company operating the biogas plant, said that they weren’t aware of this problem, and they only found out about it when the beekepers did, which is, let’s say, understandable. They claim to be now running an operation designed to stop this problem.

France is one of the largest producers of honey within the European Union, producing some 18,330 tonnes annually. As for this area, Ribeauville is best known for its wine production, but it also produces about 1,000 tonnes of honey per year. It’s still unclear how much of the honey production was affected by M&Ms.

Not just honeybees – wildbees, butterflies and moths are also in trouble

By now, you really should be aware of the honeybee problems that are plaguing populations throughout the world – their numbers are dwindling, and this poses a huge threat not just for the bees themselves, but for humans as well. Now, a new study has shown that it’s not just bees who are in trouble, but also other pollinators, like butterflies and moths.

“Almost 90 percent of the world’s flowering species require insects or other animals for pollination,” said ecologist Laura Burkle of Montana State University. “That’s a lot of plants that need these adorable creatures for reproduction. And if we don’t have those plants, we have a pretty impoverished world.”

Killing pollinators – fast


Via Life on the Balcony

It’s pretty clear that we are ones destroying honeybee populations, and the causes are not natural. Now, things are shown to be even worse, as we are having a similar effect on wild pollinators.

The causes for the decline in wildbee and butterfly numbers are pretty much the same damaging the honey bees – habitat loss and pesticide. The US and China are the main drivers behind this problem, as pesticide use has been harshly regulated in Europe, but still continues unscathed in the US, with the damage extending more and more – now, even to wild pollinators.

The damage done by pesticides is huge, and hard to quantify. As a matter of fact, it’s quite surprising that pollinators are surviving, even as hard as it is.

“It’s amazing we see as many pollinators as we do. Those are the ones who’ve survived this continuous pummeling.” , said biologist Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley

To make things even worse, the destruction of habitat is happening at alarming rates – the ones we usually talk about when referring to the Amazon forest. In the Midwest alone, more than 36,000 square miles of wetlands and prairie—an area larger than Indiana—has been converted to cropland since 2008. Needless to say, this has had an absolutely devastating effect.

The effects of killing wild pollinators

It’s often said that 1 in 3 bites of food you put in your mouth was pollinated – and wild pollinators are responsible for a big chunk of that. It’s estimated that these wild pollinators provide services of about $14.6 billion every year, in the US alone! So we’re not just talking environmental problems, we’re talking about economic problems! We’re talking about the agriculture, starting to have problems bringing the food to the table – and things will only get worse.

Also, human diets aside, pollinators put food in the mouths of many animals – wild and domesticated alike. Also, they are responsible for shaping up the landscapes, flying from flower to flower in an unceasing hum of activity.

“If there was a loss of pollinators,” said USDA entomologist Terry Griswold, “that would have a cascading effect in terms of forage for a good proportion of the biota.”

To put that in common English, the loss of pollinators will affect most animals, even if they don’t rely on pollinated flowers directly. Entire ecosystems will be reshaped or destroyed – something which will be extremely difficult to adapt to.

Scientists warn that we are nearing a tipping point – you can do some damage to the pollinators in an ecosystem, and it will still work out fine, but after one point, things will start to go horribly awry – and it will be almost impossible to fix them. Burkle likens this to an airplane:

“You can use the example of an airplane: Start to undo some rivets and screws, and it’s still going to fly, because there’s still redundancy in the system,” said Burkle. “But at some point it begins to fall apart.”

Solutions exist, but we all have to get involved

The main problem is the lack of governmental involvement in this. As of now, the main costs of protecting pollinators are borne by the farmers. The USDA recently started a pollinator habitat restoration program, which is small, but is a start. Creating (or at the very least maintaining) pollinator friendly habitats is the way to go, but who will bare the costs? The US government doesn’t seem to be interested in this, and they even allow companies to use harmful pesticides. The farmers have limited resources, and are losing ground significantly to big companies. Others have shown that it is possible to obtain competitive high-quality cost effective results using a minimum of pesticides, but again, who should lead the movement?

According to entomologist Art Shapiro of the University of California, Davis, it has to be all of us.

“I would like to see communities get together to have butterfly garden corridors running through them,” Shapiro said. “If you get five households on a city block, you’ve got a corridor. If we’re going to deal with these problems, we need to have everybody taking action,” Black said. “In the past, I worked to get wilderness designated—with salmon and spotted owls and wolves, with old growth and wild rivers. That’s different than what I do now, because anybody can do something for pollinators.”



Dino impact also wiped bees

A group of paleontologists believe that the same event that killed off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago also caused a widespread extinction in bee populations.


Currently, the widely accepted theory is that an asteroid or comet struck our planet 66 million years ago (the Cretaceous-Paleogene event, or K-Pg event), the impact and its effects basically wiping out dinosaur populations. This extinction however was selective – in that it affected some groups much more than it affected others.

The main problem when studying bees is that they leave behind a smaller fossil record than dinosaurs, and therefore it’s very hard to trace patterns. The paleontologists used molecular phylogenetic analyses (evolutionary relationships) to show that one bee group, the Xylocopinae, which originated in the mid-Cretaceous was all but wiped out by the catastrophic event. Previous studies had suggested a widespread extinction among flowering plants during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and many assumed that this plant downfall also left marks in pollinator populations, but until now, this remained a theory.

But the data scientists obtained was conclusive.

“The data told us something major was happening in four different groups of bees at the same time,” said the paper’s lead author Sandra Rehan, a biologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, US. “And it happened to be the same time as the dinosaurs went extinct.”

The event which wiped out the dinosaurs led to the demise of many species, but it also provided an ecological niche for many animals – most notably, mammals.

mammals kpg

The findings could be useful considering today’s worrying decrease in bee numbers and diversity.

“Understanding extinctions and the effects of declines in the past can help us understand the pollinator decline and the global crisis in pollinators today,” Dr Rehan explained.

Scientific reference: First Evidence for a Massive Extinction Event Affecting Bees Close to the K-T Boundary. Sandra M. Rehan mail, Remko Leys, Michael P. Schwarz. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076683

Italian ban on pesticides has major benefits on bee health


In case you didn’t know, bee popullations all around the world are dwindling. The disorder which is causing this massive decline in bee numbers is called CCD – colony collapse disorder. In 2012 alone, a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) wiped out about half of honeybee hives [read more here]. What happens in CCD is that basically worker bees go away from the hive and never return; it’s not yet clear why this happens and what are the exat causes, but there is a strong link with the more intensive use of pesticides.

The pesticide industry is huge however, and, naturally, they started voicing skepticism about this – things reached a critical level when Italy announced the ban on some pesticides last year. But the ban passed, a year passed after it, and now we see the results.


The status of the bee popullations has improved dramatically. Francesco Panella, President of the Italian Association of Beekepers, says:

On behalf of beegrowers working in a countryside dominated by maize crops, I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture to confirm the great news, for once: thanks to the suspension of the bee-killing seed coating, the hives in the Po Valley are flourishing again. We cannot underestimate that there are over one million hectares of maize crops, predominantly in Northern Italy, which means one crop out of every seven which are grown every year in our country. This year’s magnificent and unusual spring growth of bee colonies means a very good production of acacia honey in Northern Italy. We are now anxious to ensure that the temporary ban of neonicotinoid seed coating becomes definitive

There have been three papers on the matter, each detailing a different type of pesticide, though none of them are peer reviewed. However, Marco Lodesani, director of the honey bee and silkworm unit at the Agricultural Research Council (CRA-API) in Bologna, elaborates:

What did we learn in the past few years about the causes of CCD and the link with neonicotinoids?

Until recently, studies focused on the immediate, lethal effects of pesticides on bees. In other words, they looked at the dose that is needed to kill bees if they are exposed to a certain insecticide.

However, it is now clear that sub-lethal doses have a chronic effect that may be even more critical. When bees fly over the dust from coated seeds, they accumulate small doses of neonicotinoids that do not kill them. But it affects both each individual and the colonies in more subtle, long-term ways. For example, contaminated bees have a weaker immune response. This makes them more susceptible to viruses, which are a major cause of death.

Other effects are neurological and include learning problems, impaired orientation, or the inability to remember colours and odours. All of these aspects are crucial for the social organisation of colonies.

Are these chronic effect taken into account by the industry when testing for the safety of new compounds?

Not really. Testing is largely based on assays that look at the acute toxicity of compounds. But with CCD you do not necessarily expect to see bees decimated right in places where they use pesticides. You need to look at sub-lethal effects that are more insidious and difficult to study, but still involve entire colonies.

Via Planet3