Tag Archives: bees

UK government allows emergency use of bee-harming pesticide

Image credit: Pixabay.

Bees and other pollinators play a key role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and are also critical to our food security. However, they are in decline in many parts of the world, hit hard by the loss of habitats and loss and widespread use of toxic pesticides.

In recent years, many of these pesticides have been banned due to pressure from researchers and environmental groups. But they can also come back.

A nasty comeback

Thiamethoxam is a type of pesticide part of the group known as neonicotinoids, widely used around the world. However, in 2018, the most toxic ones, including thiamethoxam, were banned from outdoor use in the EU and the UK amid a growing list of evidence of the harm they cause to bees and other pollinators.

When poisoned by these chemicals, bees experience paralysis of their flight muscles and a failure in the homing behavior of foragers — which means less food for the colony. A single exposure is already enough to cause significant damage and Thiamethoxam is increasingly regarded as a problematic pesticide that is best banned. Neonicotinoids in general can also cause environmental contamination, leaching into soil and water and affecting the entire ecosystem.

However, these pesticides continue to be used even in banned places as countries can grant an “emergency derogation” when there’s the danger of a virus that can’t be contained by any other “reasonable” means. The UK is the most recent example, allowing the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet against the advice of its own government experts.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In January 2021, the UK also planned a special derogation for the pesticide to save sugar beet plants from the beet yellow virus. However, there were lower levels of disease than expected and it was announced that the conditions for emergency use had not been met. This time, things look to be different.

Environmental and health organizations grouped under The Pesticide Collaboration have launched a legal challenge. The UK government decision, even temporary, isn’t consistent with halting wildlife decline, they argue. Farmers should be supported to reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals, finding alternative solutions, they added.

The sugar beet crisis

Over half the sugar consumed in the UK comes from sugar beet grown in England. A large amount of land is put aside every year to satisfy the country’s sugar demand, but climate change is now causing problems for the crop. This has resulted in pressure from farming lobby groups for the government to allow the use of harmful pesticides.

Unfortunately, this winter is much warmer than normal, and scientific modeling predicts a 68% level of virus incidence, which means the threshold for the use of the pesticide has been met, a government statement reads.

“The decision to approve an emergency authorization was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorizations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.

There are about 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet in the UK, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). Farmers will be banned from growing flowering plans for 32 months after the sugar beet crop to minimize the risk to bees. NFU said in a statement that growers are relieved by the decision amid severe pest pressure across the country.

Campaigners argue only 5% of the pesticide actually reaches the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil and causing a higher level of contamination than in pollen and nectar. This can then be a route of exposure for many organisms, including bee species that nest underground. It’s also absorbed by the roots of many plants visited by bees, such as wildflowers.  

“Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions, not to mention directly against the recommendation of their own scientists. This decision comes just two months after the government enshrined in law a target to halt species loss by 2030,” Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said in a statement.

Situations like this are more likely to emerge as environmental regulations become tighter and climate change also puts additional pressure on agriculture. It remains to be seen what other countries will do in the UK’s position.

Temperature extremes on both ends impair bees’ flight, raising new concerns about climate change

Rising mean temperatures could help bees in colder areas fly better. Overall, however, climate change is going to impair the insects’ ability to fly, mainly through the increase in freak and extreme weather events that it promotes.

Image via Pixabay.

In order to do their job (pollination), bees need to be able to fly. And we definitely need pollinators to do their job. But, according to researchers from Imperial College London, rising temperatures all over the world are likely to impair bees’ flight performance. While colonies in areas closer to the poles (which are naturally colder) might actually see an improvement in their flight performance, as their ranges shift closer to the bees’ ideal temperatures, the increase in extreme weather brought about by higher temperatures means that, overall, bees worldwide will have a harder time flying around.

According to the findings, bee flight performance peaks at around 25-27°C but declines rapidly in both lower and hotter temperatures.

Too hot for comfort

“Climate change is often thought of as being negative for bumblebee species, but depending on where in the world they are, our work suggests it is possible bumblebees will see benefits to aspects of an important behavior,” explains first author Daniel Kenna from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial. “However, more extreme weather events, such as cold snaps and the unprecedented heatwaves experienced in recent years, could consistently push temperatures beyond the comfortable flight range for certain species of bumblebees”.

“These risks are particularly pertinent for ‘fixed colony’ pollinators like bumblebees, which cannot shift their position within a season if conditions become unfavorable, and potentially provide a further explanation as to why losses have been observed at species’ southern range limits.”

Air temperature has a direct effect on the body temperature of flying insects, including bees, the team explains — and body temperature has an impact on their ability to fly. Temperatures that are too low impair muscle activity, making them function too slowly to support flight. In too warm temperatures, the insects overheat.

In order to measure the impact of air temperature on bees’ ability to fly, the team temporarily attached bumblebees to ‘flight mills’ — devices in which they fly in circles like a carousel while their speed and flown distance were recorded. Bumblebees of several body sizes were tested at temperatures from 12-30°C, and the results were used to construct a thermal performance curve (TPC). This TPC predicts that while bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this distance would fall to under 1kmThis TPC predicts that whilst bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this average flight distance could be reduced to under 1km when temperatures rise to 35°C. At 10°C, this distance could drop to as little as a few hundred meters.

Observationally, the team found that temperatures of 15°C and below would frequently limit their flights to under 100m. Larger bees were the only ones that managed to fly in these conditions, too, which suggests that smaller individuals might be more affected by cold days but stand to benefit more from warmer conditions.

At temperatures of 15°C and below, the team observed that bees were demotivated to fly and frequently would not fly past 100m. Moreover, it was only the larger bees that successfully flew at these low temperatures, suggesting smaller individuals dislike cold days but may benefit more from climate warming.

Lead researcher Dr. Richard Gill, from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park) at Imperial, said:

“While we still need to understand how these findings translate to factors like foraging return to colonies and pollination provision, as well as applicability to other bumblebee species, the results can help us understand how smaller versus larger flying insects will respond to future climate change,” says co-author Dr. Richard Gill, also from Imperial.

“It’s not just pollination: how different flying insects respond to warming temperatures could also affect the spread of insect-borne diseases and agricultural pest outbreaks that threaten food systems. Applying our experimental setup and findings to other species can help us to understand future insect trends important for managing service delivery or pest control methods.”

For now, the team’s focus was on how climate change impacts flying efficiency exclusively, but they plan to expand their work to include its effects on other stressors such as pesticide exposure. Furthermore, they’re also looking to examine how climate change stands to impact pollination efficiency across different landscapes.

The paper “Thermal flight performance reveals impact of warming on bumblebee foraging potential” has been published in the journal Functional Ecology.

Pesticides, parasites, hunger — bees worldwide are dying faster than we thought, other pollinators might be too

Bees are falling like flies, new research reports, and it seems to be due to our use of pesticide cocktails.

Image via Pixabay.

We as a species are virtually completely dependent on bees and other pollinator insects, without whom we wouldn’t be able to put food on the table. A new meta-analysis that reviewed dozens of studies published over the last 20 years reports that the use of pesticide cocktails in agriculture greatly increases mortality among bees, more so than the substances taken individually. This is further exacerbated by the combined effects of agrochemicals, parasites, and malnutrition on bee behaviors and health.

The team concludes that current risk assessments significantly underestimate how much pressure bees and other pollinators are subjected to. The steep drop in pollinator numbers we’ve seen in crop and wild areas is a testament to these pressures, with potentially dire consequences for ecosystems around the world and our food security.

Bees in a pinch

“A failure to address this and to continue to expose bees to multiple anthropogenic stressors within agriculture will result in the continued decline in bees and their pollination services, to the detriment of human and ecosystem health,” the study concluded.

Pollinators, bees included, are the unsung backbone of our agriculture, but also of wild plant life. Given that insect populations are in decline all over the world, this naturally raises concerns for the health of pollinators going forward — and whether they can continue performing their ecological role or not. Roughly 75% of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption, including cocoa, coffee, almonds, and cherries, rely on pollinators.

Such concerns were the starting point for the current study. The authors explain that while bees seem to be able to resist the different stressors plaguing them today taken individually, they’re chafing under their weight taken together. The combined pressure from agrochemicals, parasites, and malnutrition is taking a toll on the species, greatly increasing the likelihood of death for individual bees and hives as a whole.

Intensive agriculture relies on the use of compounds such as fungicides or pesticides to protect crops and ensure large yields. “Interactions between multiple agrochemicals significantly increase bee mortality,” said co-author Harry Siviter, of the University of Texas at Austin. Furthermore, industrial-scale use of managed honey bees (in order to produce honey) increases the species’ exposure to parasites and diseases, which places even more strain on them.

The continued shrinking of areas with wild plants and wildflowers translates to less diverse pollen and nectar sources for bees, and arguably lower overall amounts of food they can access.

Although previous research has looked at these factors independently — including the effect different agrochemicals have on bees — the meta-study is the first one to look at their effect in aggregate. According to the team, the results strongly suggest “that the regulatory process in its current form does not protect bees from the unwanted consequences of complex agrochemical exposure”. Although the current analysis focused on honey bees, as most literature on the subject focuses on them, more research is needed on other pollinators, the team explains, as they might react differently to the stressors we’ve seen here.

Back in 2019, researchers were drawing attention to the fact that almost half of the world’s insect species were in decline, and a third of them were at real risk of going extinct by the end of the century. Leading causes for this decline are pesticide use and habitat destruction. Against that background, the warnings of this meta-study are all the more biting.

The paper “A cocktail of pesticides, parasites and hunger leaves bees down and out” has been published in the journal Nature.

Any amount of neonicotinoids can be harmful for bees, study finds

Neonicotinoids, one of the most widely-used types of pesticides, can severely affect bees even when applied well below the label rate, according to a new study. It was surprising even to the researchers to see how much damage neonicotinoids could do. 

Image credit: Flickr / Caroline Legg

“Neonicotinoids are often used on food crops as a seed treatment,” UC Riverside entomologist and lead study author Jacob Cecala said in a statement. “But they’re usually applied in higher amounts to ornamental plants for aesthetic reasons. The effects are deadly no matter how much the plants are watered.”

Neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide very common in agriculture but with a clear negative effect on the health of bees, causing the death of whole swarms. For years, beekeepers have been warning over their effect, pushing for stronger regulations. Fewer bees in the world can lead to the loss of biodiversity and even affect our food supply.

There are three main neonicotinoids currently in use: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. Two are made by Bayer (which owns Monsanto) and the other by Syngenta. These compounds are used to coat seeds, as a spray on citrus trees, and as a soil drench of annuals. Soybeans and corn are the main crops on which neonicotinoids are used.

A European Union moratorium has restricted the application of three neonicotinoids to crops since 2013. Meanwhile, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned last year 12 products containing neonicotinoid, leaving 47 neonicotinoid-based products on the market. In 2017, beekeepers in the US reported losing about 40% of their hives.

Dangerous pesticides

For the study, the researchers from UC Riverside focused on the application of neonicotinoids in potted ornamental plants, which represent potent and acute sources of exposure to the toxin for most bees. Most previous studies focused on the use of pesticides in food crops like canola, in which they are applied at low doses. 

The researchers raised bees on flowering native plants in pots that either received a lot of watering or a little. The plants were chosen based on their popularity, drought tolerance to ensure blooming even without a lot of water and their attractiveness to bees. While water decreased the strength of the pesticide, the negative effects on bees were still observed. 

The first time they tried the experiment, the researchers used the concentration of insecticide recommended on the product label. All the bees died in a matter of days. They ran the experiment a second time and despite using a third of the recommended dose, they still found negative effects on the reproduction and overall fitness of the bees. 

“It’s not as simple as ‘don’t use pesticides’ — sometimes they’re necessary,” Cecala said in a statement. “However, people can look for a different class of insecticide, try to apply them on plants that aren’t attractive to bees, or find biological methods of pest control.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

EU high court confirms ban on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides

Following an appeal by the agrochemical company Bayer, the European Union’s highest court has now confirmed a partial ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to harming bees, preventing their use on certain crops.

The EU’s Commission had banned the pesticides in 2018 but this couldn’t be enforced due to Bayer’s appeal until now.

Image credit: Flickr / Scott Haywood

The products in question (imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) belong to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine and target insects. They have come under fire for contributing to the decline of bees by disrupting their sense of orientation, memory, and mode of reproduction.

Neonicotinoids are used to coat seeds to protect them when they are sown — they’re essentially nerve agents meant to keep pests at bay. When the seed germinates, it spreads the pesticide throughout the plant, protecting it entirely from pests. But the substance also spreads through the rest of the plant, through the pollen and nectar, where it can be absorbed by unfortunate pollinators.

In 2013, the EU Commission severely restricted the use of these three neonicotinoids to protect honeybees, whose populations have been plummeting around the world. Despite the ban, countries found a loophole, issuing more than 200 emergency authorizations for the use of these pesticides between 2013 and 2019, an EU report showed last year.

But the loophole wasn’t enough for Bayer, which decided to file a full appeal against the EU’s ban.

The company argued the decision could have “far-reaching consequences” for the certainty and predictability of active substance approvals in the EU. It also said there was insufficient new scientific knowledge to justify the restrictions — something which many researchers would disagree with.

Apparently, the Court of Justice of the EU also disagreed. It confirmed that the Commission was within its rights to ban the use of neonicotinoids on bee-attractive crops and that, in case of uncertainty, it is also entitled to make such restrictions.

“It must be held that the arguments put forward by Bayer cannot, in any event, succeed,” the court ruling said.

Bayer was not happy with the news. A representative for Bayer told EURACTIV that the company is “disappointed that the merits of this case weren’t recognized by the court,” but claiming Bayer respects the European legislative process and accepts the decision. With the appeal, the company wanted the EU to re-consider some EU’s crop protection law interpretations.

Bayer reiterated that it stood by the safety of its products, claiming these have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide and highlighting the “value that these products have for farmers in managing pests effectively”. The company will continue offering these pesticides in all other regions, now with the exception of the EU.

Meanwhile, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, one of the campaign groups that presented arguments to the court in defense of the ban, told EURACTIV that the ruling could accelerate the ban of other toxic pesticides in the bloc. Now, in case of doubts about a pesticide’s toxicity, the EU Commission could simply ban it, the group said. Other areas could also use the EU ruling as a stepping stone for their own bans.

Greenpeace EU legal strategist Andrea Carta said in a press statement that the ruling “reaffirmed that protecting nature and people’s health takes precedence over the narrow economic interests of powerful multinationals.” The ruling means that the EU has to ensure the safety of all pesticides, GM crops, and chemicals, she added.

Reviewing over 1,500 studies on the issue, a group of European researchers confirmed in a 2018 study that neonicotinoids pose a danger to wild bees and managed honey bees. The report found most of the damage doesn’t necessarily come through the nectar and pollen directly, but rather through secondary soil and water contamination.

A quarter of all known bees “haven’t been seen” since 1990 — and this is bad news

The number of bees recorded has declined sharply since the 1990s, according to a global analysis of bee populations. While this does not necessarily mean that all of these species are extinct, it could indicate that they have become rarer — rare enough that no one can find them in the wild on a regular basis.

Image credit: Flickr / Peter Miller

Wild bee pollination is key to the reproduction of hundreds of thousands of wild plant species and is crucial to yields in about 85% of food crops. Declines in the abundance and diversity of bee species have been reported at all levels — local, regional, and country levels — on different continents.

Argentine researchers Eduardo Zattara and Marcelo Aizen looked at how many wild bee species are observed each year as recorded in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a platform in which people can record sightings of bee species. GBIF groups data from a widely diverse range of data sources, localities, recording strategies and geographic areas.

Their findings showed that 25% fewer species were reported on GBIF between 2006 and 2015, compared with the records available before 1990. This is especially worrying as the number of bee records in the database has actually increased by around 55% since 2000, so the decline isn’t because of a lack of observations, the researchers explained.

“With citizen science and the ability to share data, records are going up exponentially, but the number of species reported in these records is going down,” Eduardo Zattara, the lead author and a researcher at the Comahue University in Argentina, told The Guardian. “It’s not a bee cataclysm yet, but what we can say is that wild bees are not exactly thriving.”

The declines weren’t evenly distributed across bee families, the study showed. Sightings of rarer types of bees fell more sharply than those of more common families. Records of Melittidae, a bee family found in Africa, dropped as much as 41% since the 1990s, while Halictid bees, the second-most common family, have declined by 17% during the same period.

The study has some limitations. Most notably results are subject to some uncertainty due to the variety of data sources included on GBIF. This makes it impossible to reach definitive conclusions on individual species, the researchers said. Still, even considering possible distortions on the data, the trend seen in the study is clear and matches other previous and narrower reports over the challenges faced by bees.

“Given the current outlook of global biodiversity, it is more likely that these trends reflect existing scenarios of declining bee diversity,” the researchers wrote in the study. “In the best scenario, this can indicate that thousands of bee species have become too rare; under the worst scenario, they may have already gone locally or globally extinct.”

Bees and other pollinators are facing many challenges all around the globe. They’ve lost habitat due to agriculture, resource extraction, and urban development and are also affected by air pollution and pesticide misuse, which can kill bees directly and affect their ability to navigate or forage. Climate change is also a big challenge, with many bees failing to migrate to cooler areas.

Research last year showed that bumblebees might be heading to mass extinction. Using a massive dataset, researchers found that the insects are far less common than they used to be. In North America, for example, there’s a 50% less chance to see a bumblebee in any given area prior to 1974.

The study was published in the journal One Earth.

Researchers publish the ultimate map of bee diversity, but there’s still much we don’t know

The biodiversity of bees usually flies under the radar. There are 20,000 species of bees out there, spread across a wide range of habitats and climates. Researchers have now compiled the most detailed global map of bees which may be valuable for conservation efforts.

Image credits: Boris Smokrovic.

Bees are in trouble. From the pesticides we use to the natural habitats we destroy, we’re driving change that is devastating to bees.

The decline does not have only one cause, but land-use changes for agriculture or urbanization is consistently linked with bee decline. Over winter alone, the US honeybee population declined by 40%, and figures from the developed world exhibit a similar trend.

Most studies focus on honeybees as they are the closest related to our economic activity. We use them not only for honey but also to pollinate key agricultural species. Pollinators (mostly bees) provide yearly services amounting to more than 24 billion dollars to the United States economy alone — but wild pollinators also provide valuable contributions. Even when it’s not agricultural plants or plants we see near our cities, bees play a key role in virtually every ecosystem they’re in. That’s why mapping them is so important.

“People think of bees as just honey bees, bumble bees, and maybe a few others, but there are more species of bees than of birds and mammals combined,” says senior author John Ascher, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore. “The United States has by far the most species of bees, but there are also vast areas of the African continent and the Middle East which have high levels of undiscovered diversity, more than in tropical areas.”

It’s the first time global bee species richness has been represented. Ascher and colleagues combed through a list of almost 6 million public records where individual bee species are mentioned in the world. The global analysis revealed hotspots of species richness, but the distribution wasn’t exactly what researchers expected.

Most species follow a latitude distribution in which diversity increases toward the tropics and decreases toward the poles. But bees follow a different distribution: more species are concentrated away from the poles and fewer near the equator, a pattern known as a bimodal latitudinal gradient. There also seem to be far fewer bee species in forests and jungles than in arid desert environments, as trees tend to provide fewer sources of food for bees than low-lying plants and flowers.

This map shows modeled relative species richness of bees around the world and depicts the bimodal latitudinal gradient. Darker areas have more species. Image credits: Orr et al./Current Biology.

The main goal of the map is to establish a baseline level of bee populations. We can’t really know when global populations decline if we don’t know how abundant they are in the first place, and mapping geographical trends may inform conservation policy. The data can also be combined with other information to reveal patterns of what bees like and what they don’t.

Although difficult, such complexities must be accounted for to understand and map the history of bee evolution.

“Understanding insect distribution is key to evolutionary studies of origin and diversification, as well as ecological or conservation-oriented studies of how specific groups will respond to threats such as climate change or other human-induced phenomena,” the researchers note in the study. “In light of this, building and sharing our knowledge of insect distribution is one of the greatest, most important challenges that biologists and conservationists face, but the challenges of studying insects mandate the study of representative areas or specific groups.”

But while this is the most comprehensive map of bee diversity ever put together, many questions still remain. Data is scarce in many locations, and more local information can greatly improve the resolution and depth of our knowledge, the researchers note in the study.

This is particularly concerning since, in many parts of the developing world, where data tends to be most scarce, local agriculture relies on native bee species — of which far less is known. So data is missing exactly where we’d need it the most.

“I was surprised how terrible most of the prior global data really was about bee diversity,” says Alice Hughes, an associate professor of conservation biology at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences and another author on the paper. “A lot of the data were just too patchy or too concentrated on a small number of countries that have prioritized data sharing to be able to use these resources for any large-scale analysis.”

The team views this research as a stepping stone towards a better understanding of global bee diversity,

The authors view this research as an important first step towards a more comprehensive understanding of global bee diversity and an important baseline for future, more detailed bee research.

The study has been published in Current Biology.

Climate change is decoupling bee lifecycles from that of flowers

We know climate change is threatening the pollinators and crops that feed us, but a new study shines light on yet another of its unwanted effects.

Image via Pixabay.

Plants and pollinators are progressively decoupling their life cycles, the authors find, which can lead to massive issues for flowering plants. This decoupling stems from climate change, as average temperatures and snowmelt impacts when plants and beers emerge.

Timing troubles

“We analyzed time-series abundance data collected at 18 sites around the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in the Elk Mountains of western Colorado during a nine-year, National Science Foundation-funded bee monitoring project,” says lead author Michael Stemkovski, a doctoral student at the Utah State University Department of Biology.

“We find bee emergence timing is advancing with snowmelt timing, but bee phenology — timing of emergence, peak abundance, and senescence — is less sensitive than flower phenology,” adds Rebecca Irwin, a professor of applied ecology at of North Carolina State University and senior author of the paper.

The team assessed 67 bee species in the Colorado Rockies using data collected over a 9-year period, finding a “phenological mismatch” between their life cycles and those of flowering plants, driven mostly by changes in temperature patterns. This has the potential to disrupt the relationship formed between pollinators and flowering plants, who have come to depend on one another.

Previous research has looked into the effect of temperature on this relationship, as did the current study. However, the team also looked at how topography and the different traits of various bee species mix into the issue, as well. While species characteristics definitely did play an important part in shaping this relationship, as did elevation, snowmelt timing remained “the most important factor”, they argue.

The issue here is that the lifecycles of bees seem to shift more slowly than those of the plants they pollinate and feed off of. In time, this mismatch could lead to very serious disruptions, as flowers mature before bees are ready to ‘wake up’ from overwintering.

It shouldn’t be that big of an issue by itself, the team argues, because species can shift and adapt to new conditions relatively well. The potential problem here is that, unless we address the root cause of climate change — greenhouse gas emissions — we’ll be placing too much strain on this relationship too fast. Eventually, it can break down altogether.

“In the short-term, we expect mutualist species to suffer fitness losses,” Stemkovski says. “In the long-term, bees and plants may be able to adapt and reestablish some synchrony, unless climate change outpaces the rate of adaptation.”

Pollinators have received a lot of attention lately, because they are vital for our lives as we know them — but they’re also struggling really hard due to human activity. This paper comes as the latest in a long line of warning calls that, unless we change our ways quickly, they will be changed for us, and we won’t like the outcome.

“Given global concerns about pollinator declines, the research provides important insight into the potential for reduced synchrony between flowers and their pollinators under climate change,” Irwin concludes.

The paper “Bee phenology is predicted by climatic variation and functional traits” has been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

It’s not just humans. Native bees may also be facing their own pandemic

It seems that bees, and not just humans, are forced to deal with a pandemic of their own. A new study has found that a fungal pathogen known as Nosema has been infecting bees around the world for the past two decades. The infection has been documented across Europe, Canada, and even in Kenya.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The pathogen has almost exclusively affected the European honeybee, a well-known commercial pollinator. Nothing is known yet about the impact on native and solitary bees, which represent most of the 20,000 bee species that can be found on the planet, the researchers argued.

“More work needs to be done to understand Nosema infections in native bee species and the potential consequences to native ecosystems, if native bees suffer a similar fate as honeybees when infected,” said Arthur Grupe II, lead author and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Native bees are important as pollinators in their local ecosystems and also contribute to the pollination of agricultural crops. One out of every three pieces of food we eat is owed to a pollinator, according to Grupe. But bee populations are being challenged by the colony collapse disorder, a combination of pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and pesticides.

Nosema is part of those threats. It’s a fungal pathogen that survives by infecting the stomachs of the bees, where it germinates. While it passes through the digestive tract, the pathogen can infect other cells in the bee’s body, sickening the bee and contaminating flowers, pollen, and hives along the way. It can even lower the sperm count of bumblebees, reducing their reproduction ability.

The strains of Nosema known as Nosema apis, Nosema ceranae, and Nosema bombi are the most common ones to cause infections in bees. There are a few treatments available, such as plant extracts, as well as breeding methods for resistance and microbial supplements. But most research in native bee populations has been limited.

That’s why it’s important to better understand how these Nosema strains travel throughout the globe and affect native and solitary bees, which are the majority of all bee species, the researchers argue. The strains could lead to more bee pandemics and wider problems with bee colonies.

For example, some flowers can only be pollinated by a bee or insect with the right size and weight. If that specific bee goes extinct, problems could be severe. Flowers are also where solitary bees meet their mates. If those flowers die off, bees wouldn’t have a place to find their reproductive partners.

Pathogen spillover also represents a major threat to native bees. This happens when infected bees from commercial hives leave the fungus on flowers and native bees pick it up. These native bees, having never encountered this pathogen before, could be much more susceptible to its negative effects.

The same thing could happen the other way around. If a new, more aggressive strain of Nosema mutates in native bees, it could find its way back into commercial honeybee populations, which wouldn’t be able to resist that particular version of the pathogen.

“We know so little about the biology of what’s happening,” said in a statement Alisha Quandt, co-author and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “That’s one of the reasons why we think it’s so important for people to start doing this kind of surveillance work, going out there and sampling more native bees.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS.

Humans aren’t the only animals that get drunk (or worse): here are a few others

Drinking isn’t good for you, but watching parrots get drunk is both healthy and entertaining. Not for the parrots, though.

There’s no day like a weekend day — cause that’s when we get to party. But humans aren’t the only animals that like to abuse their systems with various chemicals. In fact, a lot of animals do it; and get into trouble afterward. We’ve seen the shenanigans that animals go through in love (and lust), some of which are amusingly similar to those we humans cause or experience. So let’s see whether our furry and feathered friends also mirror us in the bad choices we make on a night out on the town (spoiler: they do).

The Darwin Drinking Awards

Northern Australia is the only place on Earth that I know of which has three seasons: a wet season, a dry season, and a drunken parrot season.

Red-collared Lorikeet.
Image via Wikimedia.

Just before the wet season, roughly in mid-to-late December, the local Weeping Boer-bean trees (Schotia brachypetala) are flowering. This brings swarms of red-collared lorikeets to the area to feed on the nectar of the trees’ flowers. However, after a while, some of the birds start to sway a little bit — and then fall out of trees. Darwin locals report that the birds lack coordination and that they seemingly lose their ability to fly and sometimes even to walk. Vets say the birds act similar to drunken people. They also seem to experience disorientation, energy loss, and perhaps headaches, all very familiar hangover symptoms.

While the possibility of a virus affecting these birds hasn’t yet been ruled out, the event may have more to do with the trees — which are also known as the Drunken Parrot Tree, I’ll let you judge for yourself. So far, local animal caretakers and vets provide safe, quiet places for the parrots to recover — which can take months in some rare cases according to National Geographic — while providing sweetened porridge and fresh fruit. The prevailing theory is that the parrots get drunk off their tails on nectar and fruit fermented in the baking Australian heat.

Tripping Reindeers

Reindeer live in Siberia (in North America too, but they’re called caribou there). The hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria also lives in Siberia, among other places. And the reindeer like to get really, really high on the ‘shrooms during those long and dreary winter months.

Image credits Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr.

Reindeer that partake of the mushrooms have been documented to act almost as if drunk, running around aimlessly, making strange noises, and twitching their heads.

“They have a desire to experience altered states of consciousness,” Huffington Post cites researcher Andrew Haynes, who studied the behavior in the wild. “For humans a common side-effect of mushrooms is the feeling of flying, so it’s interesting the legend about Santa’s reindeer is they can fly.”

He also adds that herdsmen drink the reindeer’s urine to get high themselves.

“Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties, but its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances,” he explains for the Pharmaceutical Journal.

“Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.”

Sharing, it seems, really is caring.

Popped-up Wallabies

Wallabies are adorable, diminutive kangaroos native to Australia and New Guinea.

They look like this.
Image via Pxfuel.

Opium poppy farmers on Tasmania (an island off the south Australian coast) have reported that wallabies will sometimes break into their fields to dine on the flowers, which are the raw material for prescription painkillers.

Although exactly which species of wallabies are responsible is still unknown, the animals have been seen eating poppies before running around in circles and eventually passing out, according to a BBC report. Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania even described the animals as being “high as a kite” and creating crop circles.

“The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles,” Lara Giddings told a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops. “Then they crash.”

“We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

Rick Rockliff, a spokesman for poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids, told the BBC that these wallaby incursions aren’t very common, although other animals have been spotted “acting unusually” in the poppies.

Australia is a major producer of raw materials for the painkiller industry, supplying around half of the world’s (legally-grown) opium. And, it seems, the main supplier for wallabies as well.

Bees on a binge

Bees keep the world turning, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from functional alcoholism.


The bee nervous system is similar enough to that of humans for alcohol to have similar effects on them. In fact, researchers sometimes use bee colonies as models to test out the effects of alcohol intoxication in humans and other vertebrates. For example, a team of researchers at Ohio State University routinely gives bees ethanol — drinking alcohol — to see how it affects them. Unsurprisingly, they found that it affected their flying, walking, and grooming.

“Alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways — it impairs motor functioning along with learning and memory processing,” Dr Julie Mustard, an entomology researcher at the university, explained to the BBC.

But bees seem in no way content to limit their day-drinking to the lab. Just last year, Australian Parliament’s head beekeeper Cormac Farrell explained that the bees, which could be seen sometimes dropping on the ground around the Australian House of Parliament in Canberra, are just really blitzed. Sadly for the bees, they can sometimes drink themselves to death, and the queens aren’t very understanding of them — they will post guards at the entrance of their hives to keep any ‘merry’ bees from getting in.

“As the weather heats up, the nectar in some Australian flowers will ferment, making the foragers drunk,” Farrell told The Canberra Times last year. “Usually this makes them a bit wobbly, and if they come back to the beehive drunk the guards will turn them away until they sober up.”

“The drunk bees are kept out of the hive to stop the honey from fermenting inside, which could hurt the whole colony,” he added.

Only introduced and exotic honeybees seem affected, with Farrell noting that he had not seen any drunk native bees, of which Australia can boast 2000 species.

So, are bees just the victims of excellent work ethic and fermenting sugar? It doesn’t appear that way — bees just seem to enjoy getting smashed hard. Charles Abramson of Ohio State University told Newscientist that while most animals need to be coaxed into drinking alcohol, “we can get [bees] to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol – not even a college student.”

A bee, he adds, will drink the equivalent of a human downing 10 liters of wine in a single sitting. Flawless work ethic indeed!

Puff puff porpoise

Dolphins… like to pass toxic pufferfish around to get high.

The behavior was first reported on by marine biologist Lisa Steiner in 1995. She was studying a group of rough-toothed dolphins roughly in the region of the Azores when she noticed that some of them were pushing an inflated pufferfish around and rubbing their faces against it. Which was an odd sight, as that pufferfish uses one of the most lethal substances on Earth, tetrodotoxin, to protect itself from, among others, dolphins. Later on, Steiner would hypothesize that the dolphins were only exposed to tiny amounts of tetrodotoxin, and this resulted in a high, not death. Which is an ideal outcome in my book.

It’s still unclear whether the dolphins are actually getting a chemical kick out of the pufferfish or if they’re just harassing the poor animal for sport. The main points of contention are that tetrodotoxin isn’t known to cross the brain-blood barrier, and that it’s extremely deadly — one pufferfish contains enough to kill 30 full-grown people. However, in episode two of the BBC One documentary film, “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod,” a group of dolphins was filmed hunting pufferfish and biting into it but not eating it, then sharing the fish with their mates.

So this one is still a bit up in the air. But no matter whether the fish is used as a drug or a simple toy, given how toxic it is, it’s definitely dangerous.

These are a few of the more unusual stories of animals binging, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Jaguars like to chew on the roots of yagé vines — a main component of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca — and their diminutive cousins love catnip. And, well, humans are animals too. While it’s definitely a lot of fun reading about their shenanigans, hangovers aren’t, so enjoy your own real-life shenanigans in moderation.

Pesticides are affecting baby bees, study shows

Up to 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction, according to UN estimates. The list of threats is large but mainly includes climate change, habitat decline and the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Now, researchers have found a new way through which pesticides are affecting bees: by hurting the brains of baby bees.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In the new study, researchers at the Imperial College of London explain that pesticides can also disturb the brain of baby bees, which suffer the effects of food contaminated with pesticides brought by worker bees in the colony.

“Bee colonies act like superorganisms, so when toxins enter the colony, they have the potential to cause problems with the development of bees,” Richard Gill, author of the study, told CNN. “When young bees feed on food contaminated with pesticides it leads to less growth of parts of the brain, a permanent and irreversible effect.

To do the experiment, the researchers enriched the nectar obtained by bees with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in a concentration similar to that found in wildflowers. Then, they used that contaminated nectar in a bee colony that was set up in a laboratory.

The team waited for the bees to become adults and then tested their learning skills, first after three days and then after 12 days. Then, they compared the results with bees from colonies that hadn’t been fed with pesticides and that were fed with pesticides.

The learning ability of the bees that had been fed with nectar enriched with pesticides was significantly impaired, the results showed. The researchers did tests to see if the bees could associate a smell with a food reward, looking at the number of times out of 10 each did the task correctly.

“There has been growing evidence that pesticides can build up inside bee colonies. Our study reveals the risks to individuals being reared in such an environment, and that a colony’s future workforce can be affected weeks after they are first exposed,” Dylan Smith, also with the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, told CNN.

The study also involved scanning the brains of up to 100 bees from different colonies, using a micro-CT scanning technology. The results showed that the bees exposed to the pesticides had a smaller volume of an important part of the insect brain, known as the mushroom body — a structure in insects brain known to be associated with olfactory learning and memory, among others.

The neonicotinoids used in the study are a type of pesticide very common in agriculture but with a clear negative effect on the health of bees, causing the death of whole swarms. For years, beekeepers have been warning over their effect, pushing for stronger regulations.

Fewer bees in the world can lead to the loss of biodiversity and even affect our food supply, as bees pollinate a large number of plants. More than 75% of the world’s food crops are estimated to depend to some extent on pollination by bees.

A European Union moratorium has restricted the application of three neonicotinoids to crops since 2013. Nevertheless, a study published last year showed residues of these insecticides can still be detected in rape nectar from 48% of the plots of studied fields in the EU.

Meanwhile, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned last year 12 products containing neonicotinoid, leaving 47 neonicotinoid-based products on the market. In 2017, beekeepers in the US reported losing about 40% of their hives, a trend that has continued since then.

The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Bee markets still in good shape despite pressures from parasites and colony collapse disorder

A new study led by researchers from Montana State University examines the economic impact of colony collapse disorders (CCD) among commercial honeybees.

This research traces back to several years ago when Randy Rucker, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture, started looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse to estimate its economic impact, along with members from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University. All in all, they report, CCD isn’t a very big threat to current commercial pollinator markets.

Not good, not terrible

“With colony collapse disorder, a beekeeper goes out and virtually all the worker bees are gone,” said Rucker.

“Twenty thousand, 30,000, 40,000 worker bees, just gone. There are very few dead worker bees on the ground near the colony, and the queen, the brood and all the food are still there. But the bees are just gone.”

CCD is still poorly understood. The phenomenon first came to the attention of the industry and the public during the winter of 2006-2007, when mortality rates among bees were estimated to be around 30% of the total population. Since then, it’s been stoking concern in conjunction with other pollinator health issues (such as the Varroa mite) among beekeepers and the public.

Rucker and his team set out to identify the economic effects of CCD by analyzing trends over four categories: nationwide number of commercial honeybee colonies, honey production, the price of queens and packaged bees, and pollination fees charged by commercial beekeepers.

Rucker explains that bee populations naturally fall during the winter months. Prior to the onset of CCD, overall winter mortality rates revolved around 15% — so beekeepers have a lot of experience replacing dead hives and dealing with bee loses. Typically, they handle these issues in two ways: splitting, or simply buying more bees.

Splitting involves taking half the bees from a healthy colony and moving them to a hive that’s struggling. A newly-fertilized queen (purchased for $18-25 and received through the mail, the team explains) is also added in the mix. In about six weeks’ time, both hives should be up and running healthily. Bees can also be purchased pre-packaged through the mail; such a purchase typically includes a fertilized queen and several thousand worker bees. These ‘reinforcements’ are placed in a dead hive in order to restart it.

The team notes that both methods are relatively easy and inexpensive to pull off for beekeepers, who have relied on them even after the onset of CCD.

“Beekeepers know how to replace dead hives,” said Rucker. “As winter mortality increased after CCD appeared and beekeepers worried about having enough hives to meet their pollination contracts in the spring, they responded by splitting more hives in mid- to late summer and would then end up with the number they needed.”

Despite the extra splitting and increased demand for bees from beekeepers, the price of queens or the insects has not increased dramatically, the team found. They say this is indicative of the fact that “the supply of queens and packaged bees is sufficiently elastic that any increases in demand associated with CCD have not resulted in measurable increases in price.” Similar trends were found for colony numbers and honey production figures. Both metrics saw downward trends before the onset of CCD, and they still do, but the rate of decline hasn’t increased. They explain that colony numbers in 2018 were actually higher than they had been over the last 20 years.

The only meaningful negative impact that the team found was in the fees asked for commercial crop pollination. Even there, however, only one commercially important crop showed a significant increase in price: almonds. With about a million acres of almonds in need of pollination each year, it takes about 70% of U.S. managed honeybee colonies to get the job done.

Fees for almonds rose from roughly $70 to almost $160 — adjusted for inflation — over the winters of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. However, that’s before the onset of CCD, the team notes

“Almonds get pollinated in February or March, and it’s really the only major crop that requires pollination during that time of year,” said Rucker.

“Almond pollination fees did go up substantially, but they went up before CCD hit. You can’t attribute those increases to colony collapse disorder.”

The team says that the findings suggest CCD and other recent pollinator health concerns have little direct consequences on the health of commercial pollinator markets, which is good for both industry and consumers.

“When we started this project, we expected to find huge effects, but we found very small ones,” said Rucker. “The only effects we found on consumers, for example, is that they probably pay about 10 cents more for a $7, one-pound can of almonds at the grocery store.”

The effects of CCD are so small, Rucker explains, likely because most beekeepers expect some of their bees and honeybee colonies to die over the course of the year, and have traditionally developed methods of dealing with these disruptions. The framework was already there, and beekeepers were able to adapt it quickly and efficiently to overcome the extra disruptions caused, for example, by CCD or mites. But, there are still a lot of unknowns about the disorder, and the paper focused on the particular overlap of colony collapse disorder and economics.

Where wild pollinators are headed is impossible to say based on the results of this paper alone, the team cautions.

“The bottom line is that beekeepers are savvy [businesspeople],” he said. “Our research provides reason for optimism about the future ability of commercial beekeepers to adapt to environmental or biological shocks to their operations and to pollination markets.”

It says nothing, however, about non-managed pollinators. Data on those pollinators’ populations are sparse, and the impacts of maladies like CCD on their populations are not well understood. There is definitely much more work to be done to grasp the effects of CCD and other threats to bee health.”

The paper “Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change” has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Credit: Pixabay.

Bees can not only count, and understand the concept of zero — they also grasp the concept of numerical symbols

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Last year, researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne showed that bees could do math. Shockingly, despite their tiny brains, these buzzing insects are capable of counting, as well as grasping the concept of zero and time. Now, in a new study, the same team of researchers has shown that bees are also capable of equating a symbol to abstract numerical quantities (for instance the symbol “2” signifies two things).

Bees and math

The human brain is made out of around 100 billion neurons, with each individual neuron forming thousands of links with other neurons. The typical brain has well over 100 trillion synapses — up to 1,000 trillion, by some estimates. This impressive hardware makes the human brain unrivaled in the animal kingdom — but not necessarily more efficient.

A bee’s brain only has a million neurons, but it uses every single one of them at full power. Although their brains aren’t much larger than a sesame seed, they have more neurons than any other insect of their size. A bee’s brain is so packed together that the density of neurons is 10 times larger than the typical mammal’s.

Bees had to develop such complex neural machinery in order to control their sensory system which gives them excellent sight (including the ability to see ultraviolet and polarized light.) and a keen sense of smell, taste, and touch.

With such a sophisticated brain, it’s no wonder that bees are incredibly intelligent insects. They can remember precisely where the tastiest nectar can be found, are capable of memorizing route details up to six miles over several days. Bees can also plot these routes on a mental map in order to determine the shortest distance between points, and are able to take a different route for their outbound and inbound journeys.

“We take it for granted once we’ve learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what ‘4’ represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability,” said Adrian Dyer, an Associate Professor at RMIT University.

“Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers, but this is the first time we’ve seen this in insects.

“Humans have over 86 billion neurons in our brains, bees have less than a million, and we’re separated by over 600 million years of evolution.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers in Australia devised a novel experiment involving 20 honeybees, each marked with a colored dot in order to identify them. The insects were split into two groups: one group was taught to associate symbols with a numerical amount, and the other half had to associate quantities with symbols. For instance, an upside-down “T” stood for 3 and an “N” for 2.

The experimental set-up used to train and test the bees. Credit: RMIT University.

The experimental set-up used to train and test the bees. Credit: RMIT University.

The training involved a Y-shaped maze. At the base of the Y, the bees saw the object of their task — symbol or numerical amount — and then had to choose which leg of the Y to follow. One was labeled with a correct answer and the other with a wrong one.

When the bees chose the correct answer, they received a tasty sucrose treat. On the flip side, a wrong answer got them quinine, which bees dislike.

Finally, the bees were then tested to see if they grasped the concepts they were trained for. The bees were consistently and reliably able to identify the right number of things or the correct symbol, depending on the group they were assigned to.

“Here we show that honeybees are able to learn to match a sign to a numerosity, or a numerosity to a sign, and subsequently transfer this knowledge to novel numerosity stimuli changed in colour properties, shape and configuration,” the authors wrote.

There’s a catch though. Bees failed to make reverse associations — something that is trivial for a human infant.

“While honeybees learned the associations between two quantities (two; three) and two signs (N-shape; inverted T-shape), they failed at reversing their specific task of sign-to-numerosity matching to numerosity-to-sign matching and vice versa (i.e. a honeybee that learned to match a sign to a number of elements was not able to invert this learning to match the numerosity of elements to a sign),” the authors wrote.

“Thus, while bees could learn the association between a symbol and numerosity, it was linked to the specific task and bees could not spontaneously extrapolate the association to a novel, reversed task. Our study therefore reveals that the basic requirement for numerical symbolic representation can be fulfilled by an insect brain, suggesting that the absence of its spontaneous emergence in animals is not due to cognitive limitation,” they concluded.

Nature always seems to find a way to solve complex problems. And the findings may have implications for what we know about learning, reversing tasks, and how the brain creates connections and associations between concepts.

Bee experiment.

Bees use a small number of neurons to count, and they’re one of the best counters we know

Not only can bees count — but they can do so using laughably few brain cells.

Bee in approach.

Image credits Christian Birkholz / Pixabay.

One team of researchers from the Queen Mary University of London looked into how bees count. The insects, they report, draw on a brain-wiring trick to allow them this skill using very small numbers of neurons. In order to understand how bee brains handle numbers, the team simulated an extremely simple brain network on a computer.

Despite containing just four neurons (far fewer than a real bee can boast), this artificial brain could still handle the task. Lab results showed that it could easily count small quantities of items when inspecting one item closely and then inspecting the next item closely and so on, which is the same way bees count. This differs from humans who glance at all the items and count them together.

Counting bee

Previous research has shown that bees can count — usually up to four or five items. Interestingly enough (and perhaps, uniquely among non-humans), they can also grasp the concept of zero when trained to choose ‘less’.

However, new research reveals something really surprising: it’s possible that bees have no clue what numbers (or other numerical concepts) are. By using specific flight movements to closely inspect items, the bees draw on their visual input to simplify the task of counting so much, it requires minimal brainpower. This shows that the intelligence of bees (potentially other animals’ as well) can be based on a very small number of nerve cells, as long as these are wired together in the right way.

“Careful examination of the actual inspection strategies used by animals might reveal that they often employ active scanning behaviours as shortcuts to simplify complex visual pattern discrimination tasks,” says lead author Dr Vera Vasas, from Queen Mary University of London. “Hopefully, our work will inspire others to look more closely not just at what cognitive tasks animals can solve, but also at how they are solving them.”

She goes on to explain that although counting is generally considered to “require high intelligence and large brains,” the findings show it can be done with a small — but properly-structured — network.

“We suggest that using specific flight movements to scan targets, rather than numerical concepts, explains the bees’ ability to count. This scanning streamlines the visual input and means a task like counting requires little brainpower.

Bees only have about one million nerve cells overall, meaning they have really, really low brainpower (no offense, bees). Your average human, for example, boasts upward of 86 billion nerve cells.

Still, this limitation forced evolution to get creative, and it did. The bees overcome their relative lackluster hardware with fancy computational algorithms, the team reports. To model how these tiny insect brains receive information, the team analyzed the point of view of a bee as it flies close to the countable objects and inspects them one-by-one.

Bee experiment.

A bumblebee choosing between two patterns containing different numbers of yellow circles.
Image credits Lars Chittka.

This data was later fed to the simulated brain. It made reliable estimates of the number of items on display based on this video feed, the team reports — in essence, it could count. As such, the findings could also have implications for artificial intelligence.

“These findings add to the growing body of work showing that seemingly intelligent behaviour does not require large brains, but can be underpinned with small neural circuits that can easily be accommodated into the microcomputer that is the insect brain,” says lead author Professor Lars Chittka, also from Queen Mary University of London.

The paper “Insect-inspired sequential inspection strategy enables an artificial network of four neurons to estimate numerosity” has been published in the journal iScience.

Bee Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Utah houses one quarter of the country’s bee species

It’s like the Federal Bee Reserve!

Bee Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A bee seeks pollen from a wildflower in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Image credits Joseph S. Wilson / USU.

Utah really deserves its nickname of the Beehive state, scientists from the Utah State University (USU) report. According to a new paper they published, the state is home to one-quarter of all bee species in the nation. Roughly half of these species live and buzz in the original boundaries of the (now reduced) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.


“The monument is a hotspot of bee diversity,” says USU-Tooele entomologist Joseph Wilson, associate professor in USU’s Department of Biology, paper co-author.

Using opportunistic collecting and a series of standardized plots, the team collected bees throughout the six-month flowering season (for four consecutive years). Led by USU alum and researcher Olivia Messinger Carril, they identified a stunning 660 different bee species in the area. That’s “almost as many species as are known in the entire eastern United States,” she explains.

Out of the lot, 49 species were previously unknown. The team also found 150 morphospecies — species which, although greatly similar to other existent species, are so different in form and structure that they’re treated as a distinct twig on the tree of life.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is nestled in the plateaus of south-central Utah, 250 miles south of Salt Lake City and 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Despite being quite arid — if you’ve never visited, the site is a sprawling network of arid ridges, plateaus, and canyons — the site houses over 87% of the state’s flowering plant species.

Given its buffet-like offering of pollen, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument plays host to a huge diversity of bees and other pollinators. Wilson explains that the researchers found all walks of bees during their study — from generalists to narrow specialists, including ground-nesters, cavity and twig-nesters, cleptoparasites, solitary and social species.

Bee diversity at the site seems to peak each spring (which is pretty usual bee-havior), but also during late summer, following monsoonal rains. All in all, “it’s an amazing natural laboratory of pollinators, of which we don’t know a lot,” Wilson says.

Still, the current administration doesn’t seem to agree. On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered that the monument’s area be reduced to 1,003,863 acres (4,062 sq km), a 47% decrease. Various groups have attacked the decision in court.

“The large reduction of this protected areas could have implications for future biodiversity,” Wilson says.

On a personal note, I think that finding such a rich — and from all indications, relatively stable — pollinator population is a very encouraging sign. Between habitat destruction and pesticide use, we’re putting a lot of pressure on such species. Should they crumble under the strain, our food production would plummet. If push comes to shove (let’s hope it doesn’t), such sites may give us the opportunity to ‘graft’ pollinators back to areas that lost them.

All we have to do is not mess with it in the meantime — let’s hope we can manage that.

The paper “Wild bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: richness, abundance, and spatio-temporal beta-diversity” has been published in the journal PeerJ.

Credit: Pixabay.

Most people hate wasps — but they deserve to be loved just as much as bees

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

As anyone who’s ever been to a picnic can attest, wasps can be extremely annoying. Not very surprisingly, a new study found that most people loathe wasps, whereas bees — which are closely related to wasps — are seen very positively.

The authors, however, stress that this cultural narrative isn’t helpful, nor accurate. Wasps play an important role in many ecosystems, which could easily collapse in their absence. As wasps face their own threats and challenges, it helps that the public is better informed about the insects’ ecological role.

Wasps are as ecologically useful as bees, scientists say

It’s easy to hate on wasps — their sting really hurts and they have a rather despicable appearance. For an unlucky few, the insects can pose a real life-threatening hazard if they experience an extreme immune system reaction to the venom and enter anaphylactic shock. Culturally-speaking, they’re often portrayed as pests that prey on the weak, whereas noble bees toil throughout the day, pollinate crops, and offer us riches. But the truth is wasps may be just as useful as bees, researchers at the University College London argue in a new study.

The researchers surveyed nearly 750 people from 46 countries about their perception of insects, bees and wasps included. The results were very clear: the vast majority of the public favors bees, which they see in a positive light, whereas wasps were despised. Bees were described with positive words such as “pollinate, honey flowers, buzz”, whereas wasps were associated with “sting, annoying, pain, dangerous”.

“The results show that wasps are indeed universally disliked by the public and moreover are unpopular research taxa among researchers,” the authors wrote in the journal Ecological Entomology. 

However, wasps don’t deserve their bad reputation. It’s a myth that wasps don’t pollinate — they actually do pollinate, albeit not as extensively as bees do. And because they are generalist pollinators, wasps can cover ground where bees can’t reach or where they’ve been eliminated (i.e. due to colony collapse disorder).

Credit: Pixabay.

The most important ecological role of wasps, however, is that of pest-controllers. There’s a great variety of wasps, totaling roughly 100,000 species. Some are wingless, some dig in the ground, but nearly all prey on or parasitize pest insects. Because their larvae only eat solid food, most of a wasp’s free time is spent foraging for food, which includes species that we consider pests: aphids and caterpillars that eat the plants we want to eat, or like to admire.

Where it not for their predatory behavior, countless species of insects would be left unchecked and allowed to breed to such a scale that they would overwhelm the ecosystem.

“People don’t realise how incredibly valuable they are,” Dr. Seirian Sumner of University College London, who led the research, told BBC News.

“Although you might think they are after your beer or jam sandwich – they are, in fact, much more interested in finding insect prey to take back to their nest to feed their lavae.”

This mismatch between the ecological value of wasps and their cultural misrepresentation can have negative consequences. According to the British researchers, the number of scientific papers on the ecological importance of bees outnumbers those on wasps by 40 to 1. So not only is their role and usefulness poorly communicated in the media and other cultural mediums, but they’re also understudied.

Like bees, wasps are declining in numbers due to climate change and loss of habitat. But the lack of research, essentially due to bad press, is stalling conservation efforts. The solution is a cultural shift, which has to begin with researchers who should be more inclined to study the insects.

“Positive action to promote research on wasps and to overhaul the public image of wasps via outreach and the media could help to reset the imbalance in appreciation of two of the world’s most ecologically important taxa. Cultural shifts to a more positive attitude towards wasps could be pivotal in working with these facets of natural capital, rather than against them,” the authors concluded.

The European Union rules: total ban on bee-harming pesticides

In a landmark decision, the European Union (EU) has announced a near-total neonicotinoids ban. Neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, have long been shown to hurt bee populations.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera). Image credits: Charles Sharp.

Study after study has shown that pesticides (neonicotinoids in particular) hurt bee populations, as well as other insects, worms, and even birds. Although studies have consistently reported this issue, authorities have been slow to implement measures to protect honeybees, largely because the pesticides are so cheap and effective. Now, despite strong interventions and lobby from the industry, EU officials have instituted a ban on neonicotinoids which will come into force by the end of the year. While the EU has taken some steps to protect bee populations from the harmful effects of pesticides, it’s the first time such a wide-scale ban has been approved.

“Member states’ representatives have endorsed a proposal by the European Commission to further restrict the use of three active substances … for which a scientific review concluded that their outdoor use harms bees,” the European Commission said in a statement.

A partial ban has already been in place, and now, an expert panel of representatives from the European Union’s 28 member states has ruled the wider ban implementation. The approved ban falls over three substances: imidacloprid (which is developed by Germany’s Bayer CropScience), clothianidin (also created by Bayer CropScience, as well as Japan’s Takeda Chemical Industries), and thiamethoxam (from Switzerland’s Syngenta). All outdoor usages of the substances will be banned — they will be allowed only in closed greenhouses.

Much like the industrial companies, many farmers have also complained about the ban, claiming that it will serve to lower production. But the panel followed the scientific evidence, focusing on the environmental damage rather than on the production output and short-term economic benefits. Symbolically, this could usher in a new age, where sustainable practices and environmental safety are placed on the same pedestal as profits.

“The Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority,” said EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

“Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups have been extremely supportive of the decision.

“It’s a significant indication that we need a different form of farming across Europe that farms with nature and not against it,” said Sandra Bell from Friends of the Earth.

“The ban on neonicotinoids could be a really important step towards a more general questioning of the use of pesticides and the harm they are doing to our environment.”

Neonicotinoids, which are nerve agents, significantly hurt bees, reducing their ability to fight off diseases and causing them to become disoriented. As a result, the pesticides have also been linked to colony collapse disorder and it’s quite likely that we’ve only uncovered some of the damage they’re causing. A recent, study revealed that 75% of all flying insects have disappeared in Germany in the past 25 years — with the exact causes of this ecological Armageddon being unclear. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the plant, neonicotinoids seep inside the plant. This means that while they are effective at killing off some pests, they are also having unwanted effects on the rest of the environment.

Bees provide irreplaceable environmental services. Pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and up to 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without pollinators, and especially bees to spread seeds, many plants (including food crops) wouldn’t be able to survive.

NASA Explores the Use of Robotic Bees on Mars

Graphic depiction of Marsbee - Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Graphic depiction of Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Robot bees have been invented before, but Mars might be a place for them to serve a unique purpose. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Japanese chemist Eijio Miyako led a team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in developing robotic bees. So they’re not really bees; they’re drones. Miyako’s bee drones are actually capable of a form of pollination similar to real bees.

Bees have been the prime subject of many a sci-fi films including The Savage Bees (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). In the 21st century, bees have been upgraded. Their robotic counterparts shall have an important role to play in future scientific exploration. And this role could very well be played out on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has begun to fund a project to create other AI-steered robotic bees for the future exploration of Mars. The main cause of experimenting with such mini robots is for the desirable need for speed. The problem is this: the traditional rovers sent to Mars in the past move very slowly. NASA anticipates an army of fliers to move significantly faster than their snail-like predecessors.

A number of researchers in Alabama are currently collaborating with a group based in Japan to design these mechanical drones. Sizewise the drones are very similar to real bees; however, the wings are unnaturally large. The lengthened wingspan was a well-needed feature to add since the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner compared to Earth’s. These small insect-like robots have been dubbed “Marsbees.”

If used, the Marsbees would travel in swarms and be able to return to some sort of a base, not unlike the way bees return to their hive. The base would likely be a rover providing a place for the Marsbees to be reenergized. But they would not have to come to this rover station to send out the information they’ve accumulated. Similar to satellites, they would be able to transmit their findings wirelessly. Marsbees would also likely be able to collect a variety of data. If their full development is feasible and economical, the future for Marsbees looks promising.


Sick bees take care of themselves by eating better quality food

Sick bees will actively select for better food, study shows.


Image via Pixabay.

Being sick as an adult is quite a depressing experience. Not only do you feel horrible, but you have to call all sorts of people to let them know you won’t be coming in to work today, or that you’ll be paying them a visit at the clinic, respectively. You have to go get your own meds, make sure you’re staying hydrated — all in all, it’s a hassle, and often, we can’t really afford to take that sick leave. So we bear and power through it.

Bees, however, take good care of themselves when sick. A team led by Dr. Lori Lach, Senior Lecturer at JCU, reports that the black-and-yellow critters will actually select better food when sick, to get an extra energy boost.

For the study, the team worked with some healthy bees (as controls), others infected with the gut parasite Nosema ceranae, and compared their feeding habits. Nosema ceranae is one of the most widespread parasites of adult honey bees in the world, and its effects on the host bee’s physiology has been studied at length. However, this is “the first study we’re aware of to investigate effects on floral choice,” said Dr. Lach.

“The question then was — when the bees had the opportunity to select their own food, would they choose what was good for them?” said Jade Ferguson, the student who conducted the project for her Honours degree.

The team gave the bees artificial flowers to forage from, which housed either high-quality pollen (which was more nutritious and had a higher calorie count), low-quality pollen, or sugary water. Overall, the researchers report that healthy bees showed no preference for either type of pollen. However, twice as many infected bees picked the higher quality pollen over the lower quality one.

To their surprise, the team found that sick bees lived longer than healthy ones when they had access to the more nutritious pollen — even though it also increased the parasite count in their guts. This suggests that their preference for the higher-quality pollen stems from a bid to counteract the negative effects of the parasites.

It’s still unclear how the bees distinguish between pollens of different quality. However, the team believes that the bees’ preferences will affect what native and crop flowers the insects visit, as they can vary greatly in the quality of pollen offered. Since plants often compete for pollinators, the findings can be used to estimate which plants (both crops and wild) will be visited by a given colony. Parasite presence, the team reports, seems to be the only factor that influences which flowers are visited.


The paper “Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Pollen Foraging Reflects Benefits Dependent on Individual Infection Status” has been published in the journal Microbial Ecology.

Neonicotinoid pesticides found in 75 percent of honey worldwide

An analysis of honey samples from locations all around the world showed that 75% of them were contaminated with pesticides known to harm bees. About half of the samples actually contained a cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals, besides the neonicotinoid pesticides.

Credit: Pixabay.

Previously, this class of pesticides has been identified by scientists as the most likely cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD) — a strange phenomenon where adult worker honeybees simply disappear from the hives, almost simultaneously, leaving behind the queen and immature bees which could no longer care for themselves. As the name implies, the colony simply collapses.

Honeybees are exposed to this pesticide because its residue is found in nectar and pollen. In fact, it persists in the soil and in woody plants for up to six years after application. While a strong direct link between colony collapse disorder and neonicotinoids has not yet been established, it is increasingly clear that after exposure to these pesticides, honeybees become more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. One study also found that neonicotinoids could prevent the bumblebee queen from laying eggs. Between 2008 and 2013, wild bee diversity in the US dropped by 23 percent, and a previously common bumblebee species was recently listed as endangered.

And it’s not just honeybee populations that are collapsing. Monarch butterflies have been declining significantly, reaching the lowest count ever recorded during the 2013-14 as a result of habitat loss, particularly the loss of milkweed (the species’ only food source), and mortality caused by the use of pesticides. West North America lost 95% of its Monarch butterflies over the last 35 years, according to a distressing recent report.

The long arm of pesticides

Since the first episodes were identified in 2006, CCD has turned into an environmental crisis. Today, most bee species are in decline, with annual regional losses as high as 60%. Bees are some of the world’s most important pollinators, being responsible for about one-third of the plant we eat — a service worth hundreds of billions in the worldwide economy.

The ecological contribution of bees is of course invaluable. Countless species of plants and the animals that feed upon these plants depend on bee pollination for their survival. Where bees disappear, ecosystems are impacted in a cascading effect which is difficult to predict. One thing’s for sure: things aren’t good, and they’re not likely to get better, new research shows.

A new study published in the journal Science joins a body of evidence that suggests pesticides are dramatically interfering with bee foraging and pollination. The international team of researchers analyzed honey samples from nearly 200 hives spread throughout the world. The samples were collected and donated by citizen scientists as part of a project launched by the Botanical Garden of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 2016.

“Finding neonicotinoids in honey is perhaps not surprising,” says lead author Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee, UK. After all, the pesticides are widely used. “But to find neuroactive levels, in so many samples at many global sites, is shocking.”

About 75% of all samples contained measurable quantities of pesticides, which was surprising given that the coverage also included highly remote locations like oceanic islands. About half of the samples contained a mix of various insecticides.

The concentrations of pesticides involved are very low but these chemicals are extremely toxic, up to 10,000 times more potent than DDT, one of the first pesticides of widespread use. DDT was banned for agricultural uses worldwide by the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. 

The highest contamination rates were reported in North America with 86% of samples containing one or more neonicotinoid pesticides. Asia, Europe, and South America followed, with  80%, 79%, and 57% of samples containing pesticides, respectively. The EU introduced a partial ban on neonicotinoids back in 2013, but the European honey samples included in the analysis was sourced before the legislative measure was installed.

“If you look at the minimum concentration for which a significant negative impact on bees has been found, then 48% of our samples exceed this level,” said Professor Edward Mitchell at the University of Neuchâtel.

Neonicotinoids were introduced the mid-1990s. The group consists of various pesticides that are based on the chemical structure of nicotine, and attack the nervous systems of insect pests. But bees, wasps, butterflies, and other insect pollinators seem to have been caught in the cross-fire.

According to a 2014 review, neonicotinoids might seriously jeopardize worldwide food security with far-reaching consequences. Three types of pesticides in this class have been banned in the EU for flowering plants, and the appropriate EU commission is now working on a draft that will ban neonicotinoids from all plants. Other countries will surely follow, hopefully with a worldwide ban similar to DDT — for everyone’s sake.