Insecticides proved to have devastating effects on honeybee health

Insecticides proved to have devastating effects on honeybee health

New research suggests insecticides containing flupyradifurone and sulfoxaflor can have devastating effects on honeybee health

The substances damage the insects’ intestinal flora, especially when used in conjunction with a common fungicide, making them more susceptible to disease and shortening their life span.

This was recently proven in a study conducted at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).

The two insecticides were considered harmless to bees and bumblebees when approved, but their use has since been severely restricted.

For the study, honeybees that were free from environmental influences were first bred in the laboratory.

Dr Yahya Al Naggar, the biologist who led the project at MLU and who now works at Tanta University in Egypt, said: “We wanted to control every aspect of the bees’ lives – from their diet to their exposure to pathogens or pesticides.”

In the first few days, all bees were given the same food: sugar syrup.

They were then divided into several groups and various pesticides were added to their food. One group was given flupyradifurone, while another was given sulfoxaflor.

Both substances are approved insecticides in Germany, but their use is now limited to greenhouses.

See also: Bee diversity improved by flower strips on farms

effects on the bees

As pesticides are often used as a mixture, the scientists also took this into account in their laboratory experiment by enriching the food administered to two other groups not only with the insecticides mentioned, but also with azoxystrobin, which has been used to protect plants from harmful fungi for many decades.

The concentration of the substances was well below the legal requirements in each case.

Al Naggar said: “Our approach was based on the realistic concentrations that might be found in pollen and nectar from plants that have been treated with the pesticides.”

A control group continued to receive the normal sugar syrup without additives.

Over a period of ten days, the team observed whether the substances had any effects on the bees and, if so, what.

They found that the pesticides are anything but harmless: around half of all bees whose diet had been supplemented with flupyradifurone died during the study – and even more when combined with azoxystrobin.

While sulfoxaflor produced similar effects, more insects survived the diet. 

bacteria detected

The scientists also analysed the bees’ intestinal flora, i.e. the bacteria and fungi living in their digestive tract.

UFZ’s Dr Tesfaye Wubet who is also a member of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, said: “The fungicide azoxystrobin led to a significant reduction in naturally occurring fungi. That was to be expected, as fungicides are used to control fungi.”

Over the course of the ten-day study, however, the team was able to show that the mixture of fungi and bacteria detected in the insects differed greatly from the control group depending on the substances used.

According to the researchers, the bacterium Serratia marcescens was able to spread alarmingly well in the digestive tract of the treated insects.

Al Naggar advised: “These bacteria are pathogenic and harmful to bees’ health.

“They can make it harder for the insects to fight off infection, leading to premature death.” 

As the study was conducted in a laboratory in Halle to exclude the number of external influences, it is unclear whether the same results can be found in nature.

Wubet concluded: “The effects of the pesticides could well be even more dramatic – or the bees might be able to fully or at least partially compensate for the negative effects.”

With this in mind, the team calls for the potential effects of new pesticides on beneficial insects to be researched more rigorously before they are approved and for their effects on aspects such as intestinal flora to be included as standard in the risk assessment.

The research is published in Science of the Total Environment.

Image credit: Uni Halle/ Markus Scholz.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Aether: Issue 3 Feb 2023

Aether: Issue 2 Nov 2022

Aether: Issue 1 Aug 2022

Subscribe for free

Latest Testimonial

What a beautiful motto: Discoveries must be read and not just published. When I was contacted by Aether as a new digital service to share scientific and technological insights I had my doubts that this was really going to be according to what I call the “open source & makers’ spirit”: knowledge should be free and it is there to be shared.

Well, Aether is faithful to its motto and shares discoveries freely. It has been a pleasure to collaborate for the interview and subsequent article. It has been greatly self satisfying to see how the interview was professionally and truthfully redacted and then published. Sharing thoughts and sparks for discussions is fundamental to the progress of society. Your journal offers clarity and brevity and I believe it provides the sparks to ignite any reader whether academic or not into action.

Dr Maria-Cristina Ciocci
Co-founder and Manager of non-profit organisation De Creative STEM,GirlsInSTEM