Pesticides Meant for Insects Also Killing Bees—but Antidote in the Works

bee decline could hurt food supply for humans

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Bee pollinating a flower
Every year since 2006, beekeepers have reported high losses of bees due to colony collapse disorder when worker bees abruptly disappear from a hive. Photo By Jack Hong / Shutterstock

Insecticides can kill pests on contact, but what happens if they work too well? A popular group of insecticides has been determined to be the source of a number of unintentional bee colony poisonings. One potential antidote, an enzyme, can break down the insecticide before the bees digest it. The only catch is, the antidote has to be administered in the form of pollen-like microparticles—and given before the bee comes into contact with the poison.

Why go through such trouble for bees? Part of the motivation is that bees are a vital type of pollinator, propagating plant life all over Earth. In his video series Zoology: Understanding the Animal World, Dr. Donald E. Moore III, Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, explained the importance of pollinators.

Pollen: Not Just for Your Windshield

According to Dr. Moore, insects are more than 400 million years old and entomologists confidently proclaim that the human species can’t live without Earth’s insect pollinators, period.

“Pollination is an essential function for plant life, not just a great natural history story,” Dr. Moore said. “Pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from the anther, or male flower parts, to the stigma, the female part of the flower. The goal of live plants is to reproduce, of course, and successful pollination allows plants to produce speeds that carry the species’ legacy through the next generation.”

If we didn’t have animal pollinators, flowering plants and their corresponding ecosystems would die out. This is a major problem for humans since, Dr. Moore said, approximately one-third of the food we eat relies on bees to some extent, including tomatoes, broccoli, almonds, apples, blueberries, peaches, oranges, and many more.

“Economists estimate that the economic value of bees’ pollinating activities in the U.S. is about $15 billion per year,” he said.

Save the Bees if You Please

In 2006, scientists first detected a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees abandon their hives en masse. Three main factors contribute to colony collapse: disease, reduction in plant diversity or habitat, and environmental stressors like pesticides.

When honeybees are used commercially they end up in a monoculture, though for 130 million years they’ve become accustomed to a generalist—or multicultural—diet.

“Honeybees aren’t the only bees that have been hit by ecological pressures,” Dr. Moore said. “The big fur coat that bumblebee pollinators have evolved to help them be active in cool weather may make them too hot in the warmer weather caused by climate change. Bumblebees are declining quickly and some have gone extinct.”

Aside from making tiny portable fans for bumblebees, how can we reverse the pollinator decline? Dr. Moore encouraged individuals to offset the damage by planting native plants in their backyard, thus producing pesticide-free pollinator gardens.

Alternatively, we can allow ground-nesting bees to nest in our backyards and, when possible, leaving dead limbs on trees, which are good for pollinators’ nesting sites.

In the meantime, a pesticide antidote is on the way.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily