Human activity is wreaking havoc on bee brains and bodies

Human activity is wreaking havoc on bee brains and bodies

Human activity is wreaking havoc on bee brains and bodies

Photographic illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photographic illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Drunk bees unable to walk in a straight line after having ingested “safe” concentrations of insecticides; bee wings showing signs of stress due to climate change: Humans are messing up bees beyond repair in ways that could threaten their existence as well as the survival and health of the plants they pollinate.

Two recent studies explore this problem like never before, confirming the role of human activity in wreaking havoc on bee populations. Taken together, the research suggests that humans pose an existential threat to these species of pollinators – one that cannot be fully countered by a simple fix.

“The work we are doing is revealing that many of our actions are putting these insects under pressure,” Richard Gill, an insect evolution researcher at Imperial College London, told The Daily Beast. Gill led a study published Wednesday in Journal of Animal Ecology, where he and his team measured the wings of four different species of bee preserved in museum collections across Britain. He found that over the last century, warm, wet years have led bumblebees to develop less symmetrical wings — an indicator of stress that is similar to bee scars due to their environment.

“Small changes to something like the shape of an airplane’s wing, for example, can have obviously devastating effects,” Gill said, although it’s not yet known how wing asymmetry affects bee flight.

Current methods of measuring the impact of climate change on species often rely on lagging metrics, Imperial College London life science researcher and study co-author Aoife Cantwell-Jones told The Daily Beast. This means organisms may not show signs of stress until later generations.

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A bee collection drawer in the Natural History Museum, London, England.

Coaches at the Natural History Museum, London

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A bee collection drawer in the Natural History Museum, London, England.

Coaches at the Natural History Museum, London

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A bee collection drawer in the Natural History Museum, London, England.

Curators of the Natural History Museum, London

Wing asymmetry, on the other hand, is directly linked to the stress a bee experiences during a period of its development. Because the museum collections the researchers used date back a century, they first made sure that the age of the bumblebees didn’t predict the condition of their wings — if that were the case, Cantwell-Jones said, the oldest bees would have the most. asymmetry when, in fact, some of the more recent specimens did.

“Variation in weather can clearly cause more stress,” Gill said, and human-caused climate change is creating a perfect storm of warm, humid temperatures for bees.

Another study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in insect science addressed another facet of humanity’s disastrous impact on nature: insecticides. Rachel Parkinson, the study’s lead author and a neuroethologist at the University of Oxford, told The Daily Beast that much research has made clear the harmful effects of pesticides and insecticides on key pollinator species such as bees. “It’s a little disheartening” that these harmful chemicals are still being sprayed to kill these insects, she said.

In this study, however, Parkinson focused on the neurological and behavioral effects on bees of low doses of insecticides normally considered safe and acceptable for widespread use. What she and her team found was surprising: bees that fed on insecticide-sweetened water roamed when presented with moving images that would otherwise be trapped. And even when they seemed to want to orient themselves towards an image, they couldn’t walk in a straight line.

To make these measurements, Parkinson placed dozens of bees on top of a ball kept floating through the upward-directed air, one at a time. A pipette tip taped to their backs prevented them from flying away, and Parkinson showed the bees vertical black bands of different widths that moved across a screen in front of them. After heating them under a heat lamp (a tip given to her by a fly researcher), the moving images made the bees orient themselves and walk on the ball, which rotated but stayed in place.

Parkinson said the bees use this form of visual processing and motion detection to remember how far they have flown and return to the hive. In extreme cases, pesticides can lead to a poorly understood phenomenon called colony collapse disorder — Parksinson said future research could link the chemicals to bees leaving their hives and never returning.

“Bees tend to be very sensitive to different things going on in the environment, and at the moment they seem to be really struggling,” she said.

The researchers admit that there is no simple solution to any of these anthropogenic issues – banning pesticides or reversing climate change immediately is out of the question. But Gill said studying neglected museum collections to understand the past could help scientists make more informed predictions about the future. And Parkinson said there are effective alternatives available in some cases where insecticides are used, such as the introduction of beneficial predatory insects such as ladybugs or dragonflies.

“I don’t think stopping insecticide use is the answer, because of the way agriculture works,” she said. “But I think a shift to finding more natural pest management solutions will help us get where we need to go.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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