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Spider Venom Could Produce Bee-Safe Pesticide

FILE - Researchers have created what they're calling a 'bee-safe' pesticide. (Photo: Adam Vanbergen)

FILE - Researchers have created what they're calling a 'bee-safe' pesticide. (Photo: Adam Vanbergen)

A new pesticide using spider venom and plant protein could be a valuable tool in stemming the collapse of honeybee populations.

Researchers at Newcastle University in England developed the pesticide using the venom of an Australian funnel web spider and snowdrop lectin.

The researchers fed “acute and chronic doses” of the pesticide to bees and found it only had a “very slight effect on the bees’ survival and no measurable effect at all on their learning and memory.”

Bee colony collapse is a phenomenon in which masses of bees never find their way back to the hive.

In the United States, beekeepers have been reporting for the past eight years that around 30 percent of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. died, although the most recent survey for colony loss from 2013 to 2014 had slowed to just over 23 percent.

Bees perform the vital task of pollination, a process needed for up to one-third of the world’s crops.

The role commonly-used pesticides play in bee colony collapse is not completely understood, as other factors like parasites, weather changes and malnutrition due to a decrease in forage plants all may contribute to collapse.

A study earlier this year found that sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids, a substance found in many pesticides, led to colony collapse. The study was attacked by pesticide manufacturers.

“There is now substantial evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides to poor performance and survival in bees,” said Angharad Gatehouse of Newcastle University’s biology department who was involved in developing the pesticide in a statement.

Her colleague Geraldine Wright, one of the paper’s authors, led the research last year highlighting “the damaging effect of neonicotinoids on bees’ ability to learn and remember and subsequently communicate to their hive mates.”

Jeff Pettis who heads the federal government’s bee research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, told the New York Times that colony collapse was a “complicated story,” adding that many factors determine colony health.

The Newcastle University team said that the new pesticide works differently from other types in that it does not appear to affect the mechanisms involved in bees’ learning and memory.

Newcastle University researchers exposed the bees to varying concentrations of the spider/snowdrop pesticide over seven days, carrying out memory tests and noting changes in behavior.

“Our findings suggest that [the pesticide] is unlikely to cause any detrimental effects on honeybees,” said Gatehouse. “Previous studies have already shown that it is safe for higher animals, which means it has real potential as a pesticide and offers us a safe alternative to some of those currently on the market.”

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the director of the Bee Informed Partnership, a group that studies bee health and management, called the new pesticide “very promising,” adding that “we certainly need more bee safe products.”

He added that how “bee-safe” products are tested needs revisiting.

“If we have learned anything it is we need to see if products become more lethal when in combination with other products,” he wrote in an email. “We also need to measure the possible effects products have on immune function. Case in point: Fungicides are not considered toxic to bees. But growing evidence shows that bees exposed to them are more likely to become infected with common bee diseases.”

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