Apr 27, 2015 04:26 PM EDT
For bees jonesing for their next fix, fate could be a little messy with their newest addictions. In a new study published this week in the journal Nature, researchers conducted experiments to find out just how new pesticides are affecting bee foraging behavior. And what they found is that humans aren't the only ones addicted to small bits of nicotine-bees crave it too.
Due to the fact that bees play a vital role in crop and plant pollination world-wide, their colony fitness and foraging behaviors are not only an ecologist's concerns, but a fiscal one as well. Should the bees change their behavior or suddenly stop, crops could run the risk of not growing and farmers could lose their business-not to mention the already tight rations of foods in most nations. So when the researchers began to notice the effects of deadly pesticides, they immediately thought of the bees.
Currently studies are being conducted to show the potency and potential harm that a class of pesticides, known as "neonicotinoids", are having on insect populations. Though, while many farmers want to keep the nasty bugs from munching on their crops, bees are welcomed visitors, so the balance of keeping them safe while keeping everyone else off is a hard balance. In a contained study created in the lab, the new study led by Geraldine Wright of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, the researchers tested bumblebees versus honeybees to see if anyone noticed the nicotine-laced nectar presented to them.
"Bees can't taste neonicotinoids in their food and therefore do not avoid these pesticides" Wright says.
In fact, while the bees may not be able to sniff or taste out the pesticides in their food, it appears that they do prefer neonicotinoid-contaminated food rather than the real deal. Of the two species, bumblebees on average tended to consume higher levels of toxins than honeybees, and researchers believe that it is enough to change their foraging behavior significant;y/ Wright and her colleagues believe that through the same neurobiological mechanism as is seen in humans addicted to nicotine, these bees are choosing pesticide-laced foods that they find more rewarding on account of their new addictions.
For agricultural developers and farmers worried about their crops, this may be good news in the short run, but in the long-run could cause serious damage not only to the bees but to the ecosystems, as well. Knowing how addictions run their course, researchers believe that this preferential selection for nectar contaminated with toxins may not only change foraging behaviors, but the overall health of the hives too.
"The fact that bees show a preference for food containing neonicotinoids is concerning as it suggests that like nicotine, neonicotinoids may act like a drug to make foods containing theses substances more rewarding" Wright says. "This is putting them at risk of poisoning when they eat contaminated nectar. Even worse, we now have evidence that bees prefer to eat pesticide-contaminated food."
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