Are Bees Losing Their Buzz?

The news that the UK government has reinstated the ban on the use of neonicotinoids as a pesticide couldn’t have come at a more timely juncture, with a new study revealing yet more damaging effects of the substance on the health of the world’s bee population.

Conducted at the University of Stirling and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study found that exposure to neonicotinoids could have debilitating effects on a bee’s ability to buzz. While that not may sound serious, the implications for its pollination abilities could be severe.

Can’t catch a buzz

While buzzing might sound like a superficial characteristic of the bee, it has more importance than you might have suspected. The vibrations of the bee’s wings (which cause the sound) are instrumental in dislodging pollen from the anthers of a flower and onto its body.

Similarly, when the bee moves onto its next target, the wingbeats are again key in shedding the previously gathered pollen onto the new flower, thus resulting in cross-pollination. This process is absolutely vital to the survival and proliferation of many species of flora across the UK, including crop growth.

The scientific approach

Evidence against neonicotinoids has been mounting for some time now, though the challenges facing pesticide analysis and monitoring mean that the industry (including the vast majority of farmers) have opposed scientific studies and denounced them as inconclusive.

This latest study took a novel approach by concentrating solely on the pesticide’s effect on the bees’ acoustic output. In laboratory conditions similar to those experienced in the wild, the researchers monitored the frequency, length and pitch of the bees’ buzzing while in the process of pollination. The results showed that not only were the bees exposed to the pesticide emitting shorter and lower sounds, but they also collected less pollen, as well.

“We found that control bees, who were not exposed to the pesticide, improved their pollen collection as they gained experience, which we interpreted as an ability to learn to buzz pollinate better,” explained Dr Penelope Whitehorn, lead author on the paper. “However, bees that came into contact with pesticide did not collect more pollen as they gained more experience, and by the end of the experiment collected between 47% and 56% less pollen compared to the control bees.”

An end to neonicotinoids once and for all?

While opponents of the government ban on the substance will undoubtedly argue once again that the test conditions of a lab aren’t representative of a real-world environment, the evidence against neonicotinoids is becoming almost impossible to ignore.

It’s a key indicator that the Tory government – who lifted the ban on the pesticide two years ago – are now performing a U-turn on the topic. With the additional charge of being a buzzkill laid at its door, the writing could now be on the wall for neonicotinoids, once and for all.

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