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Pesticide poisoning could stop bees from finding flowers, new research shows

Posted on 13/12/2016
Liz Samuelson in the lab

New research published today in the journal Scientific Reports has shown how poisoning by pesticides can affect bees’ spatial memories leading them to forget where they have been, making feeding less efficient and potentially affecting navigation.

The study by scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London showed that bees exposed to neonicotinoids (a class of insecticide based on nicotine) were less able to remember which flowers they had previously foraged from. This meant they wasted valuable resources revisiting flowers which would yield considerably less nectar.

Liz Samuelson, lead author and PhD student from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway explained, “Spatial memory is vitally important for foraging bees, which need to remember where good sources of nectar are but avoid revisiting flowers they have already depleted. Our finding that spatial memory is affected by pesticides suggests that bees exposed to these chemicals in the wild may be foraging less efficiently or even losing their way back to the nest.”

“There is growing evidence that pesticides are having harmful consequences for bees, with many studies showing that these classes of insecticide based have damaging effects on bee learning and memory. This is a concerning finding as it may mean bees are struggling to forage in the wild,” Ms Samuelson added.

This research comes at a significant time for the pesticide debate, with the EU restrictions on neonicotinoid use currently under review. Discovering the impact of pesticides on bees is crucial as pollination is an essential ecosystem service, and bees pollinate approximately one third of global crops.

Ms Samuelson described how the team undertook the study, “To look at the effects of pesticide on spatial memory we adapted an apparatus originally designed for rats: the radial-arm maze. In the lab, a bee is allowed into a foraging arena to feed on an array of artificial flowers. To avoid wasting time and energy revisiting flowers she has already emptied (all worker bees are female), she must remember which ones she has visited and avoid revisits. The fewer mistakes she makes, the better her spatial memory.”

“We are continuing to study how humans may be having positive or negative effects on bee populations, by researching how the spread of urban areas might impact bees. We are particularly interested in whether bees are finding enough to eat in cities, and how the amount of food (nectar and pollen from flowers) available affects their colony growth.” Ms Samuelson concluded.

What does bee-ing a researcher mean to Liz? 

I have always found bees fascinating, from the first time I saw a 10,000-strong colony of honeybees through the glass of an observation hive. They are capable of incredibly complex behaviours, both on their own and as a group, making them important models for studying how animals learn and organise. In addition, bees are a vital part of our global ecosystem, pollinating crops and wildflowers, meaning that it is important to research ways to conserve them.

Why Royal Holloway?

Royal Holloway is a hub for bee research, with two active and expanding lab groups focussing on different aspects of bee conservation, behaviour and health. I was keen to be part of a university with a well-renowned Biological Sciences Department, and the beautiful campus made my decision to come here easier!

How can students benefit from this research?

For this study we designed a novel apparatus for testing spatial memory in bees, which has opened up some exciting new avenues for understanding aspects of bee brains. As such, we have a number of undergraduate projects lined up with the aim of answering questions about how bees learn and remember where they have been. We hope that these projects will provide students interested in pursuing a career in Animal Behaviour with invaluable experience in designing and conducting behavioural experiments.

What is your advice for students wanting to progress to this area of research?

My advice to students interested in Animal Behaviour research would be to get some experience in a research lab, whether as a volunteer or a research assistant. Becoming familiar with how questions about behaviour are approached and how experiments are conducted will give you a considerable advantage when it comes to applying for Masters and PhDs, and will also help you decide which areas of Animal Behaviour you might be interested in.

Learn more about the School of Biological Sciences and apply here.


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