Research shows bees are getting hooked on their own version of nicotine

29 Aug 2018

Image: Anteromite/Shutterstock

Despite the incredible damage it causes to the species as a whole, bees can’t get enough of pesticide-laced food.

When it comes to loving food that isn’t very good for us, it seems both humans and bees have this in common.

New research conducted by a team from Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London has shown that over time, a bumblebee will become addicted to pesticide-laced food, shunning uncontaminated food.

The findings published to the Proceedings of the Royal Society B saw the researchers test the theory using the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, one of the most common in the world and now almost completely banned in the EU.

The team tracked 10 bumblebee colonies over a period of 10 days, giving each colony its own foraging area where they were free to choose between a regular food supply and one laced with neonicotinoids.

While at first the bees preferred the clean food source, over time they eventually began to exclusively feed more and more on the laced food.

This was the case even when the positions of the feeders were changed, indicating that the creatures can detect – and prefer – the food with pesticide.

Arguing against an outright ban

“Interestingly, neonicotinoids target nerve receptors in insects that are similar to receptors targeted by nicotine in mammals,” said Dr Richard Gill, lead researcher of the study.

“Our findings that bumblebees acquire a taste for neonicotinoids ticks [sic] certain symptoms of addictive behaviour, which is intriguing given the addictive properties of nicotine on humans, although more research is needed to determine this in bees.”

The team was eager to differentiate itself with other studies that exclusively fed bees with a pesticide diet. In the wild, it argued, bees have a much greater choice of food to work from.

“Whilst neonicotinoids are controversial, if the effects of replacements on non-target insects are not understood, then I believe it is sensible that we take advantage of current knowledge and further studies to provide guidance for using neonicotinoids more responsibly, rather than necessarily an outright ban,” Gill added.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic