Findings add fuel to the debate over whether a commonly used chemical damages insect populations
Honeybee stings ache for a good reason: This species knows how to brawl. But as it turns out, these black-and-yellow pollinators are quite vulnerable themselves—especially to neonicotinoids, a pesticide commonly used to ward off crop-munching pests. Two new studies, published this week in Science, address this question by studying large populations of bees in multiple locations for months on end. The results add substantial weight to the claim that neonicotinoids damage bee populations.
“I hope that my study kind of makes the debate go away,” says Amro Zayed, an entomologist who studies social insects at York University in Toronto and is co-author of one of the new reports. Even though honeybees are not the intended targets of neonicotinoids, any indication that the resilient insect is suffering from the chemical means less-adaptable species might be in trouble, too. The pesticide is intended to eradicate insects that chew up or suck on grain crops—which is why these substances coat almost all corn and 50 percent of soy seeds in the U.S. “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find corn not treated with neonicotinoids,” says Shiela Colla, an ecologist also at York who is unaffiliated with the study research.
Most prior research on the bee–pesticide relationship has only involved feeding the chemicals to small populations in lab settings or observing a few populations in nature for a couple of weeks. Such stand-alone studies do not gather enough evidence on the true nature of honeybee behavior, Zayed says. Colla agrees, which is why she praises the York study’s sample size and length.