Diesel exhaust pollution may disrupt honeybee foraging

LONDON Thu Oct 3, 2013 9:07am EDT

A colony of honeybees swarm on the ledge of a window outside the Media Centre, in Bern June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

A colony of honeybees swarm on the ledge of a window outside the Media Centre, in Bern June 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ruben Sprich

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LONDON (Reuters) - Exposure to pollution from diesel exhaust fumes can disrupt honeybees' ability to recognize the smells of flowers and could in future affect pollination and global food security, researchers said on Thursday.

In a study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, scientists from Britain's University of Southampton found that the fumes change the profile of the floral odors that attract bees to forage from one flower to the next.

"This could have serious detrimental effects on the number of honeybee colonies and pollination activity," said Tracey Newman, a neuroscientist who worked on the study.

Bees are important pollinators of flowering plants, including many fruit and vegetable crops.

A 2011 U.N. report estimated that bees and other pollinators such as butterflies, beetles or birds do work worth 153 billion euros ($203 bln) a year to the human economy.

Bee populations have been declining steadily in recent decades but there is scientific disagreement over what might be causing it. Much attention has been focused on whether a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids may be the culprit.

A report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in January said three widely-used neonicotinoids, made mainly by Switzerland's Syngenta and Germany's Bayer, posed an acute risk to honeybees.

EU leaders voted in April to ban three of the world's most widely-used pesticides in this class for two years because of fears they could be linked to a plunge in the bee populations.

But the British government, which recommended abstaining in a previous EU vote in March, argues the science is inconclusive and advises caution in extrapolating results from laboratory studies to real-life field conditions.


Guy Poppy, an ecology professor who worked with Newman, said to be able to forage effectively, honeybees need to be able to learn and recognize plants - a process their results showed could be disrupted by so-called NOx gases, particularly nitrogen dioxide, found in diesel exhaust and other pollution.

For their study, the scientists took eight chemicals found in the odor of oil rapeseed flowers and mixed them in one experiment with clean air and in another with air containing diesel exhaust.

They found that six of the eight chemicals reduced in volume when mixed with diesel fumes, and two disappeared completely within a minute - meaning the profile of the chemical mix had changed. The odor mixed with clean air was unaffected.

When the researchers used the same process with NOx gases - nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide - found in diesel exhaust emissions, they saw the same results, suggesting NOx is key to how and why the odor's profile was altered.

When the changed chemical mix was then shown to honeybees - which are known to use their sensitive sense of smell to forage for flowers - they could not recognize it.

Giles Budge of Britain's Food and Environment Research Agency said Newton's study highlighted "a fresh issue to add to the many problems facing our insect pollinators".

But he said that since the study was based in the laboratory, more research is needed to see if the problem is occurring in the wider environment.

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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Comments (4)
auger wrote:
Since both of the companies responsible for the report produce crop insecticides for profit, it may be difficult to get diesel burners on board with this study. I hope still that they are on to something

Oct 05, 2013 6:46am EDT  --  Report as abuse
elsewhere wrote:
Wouldn’t you know environmentalists would be looking for another cash cow since they are loosing the discussion about global warming. The UN should be spending its time and money trying to stop terrorism and attacks like those in Kenya, Afganistan and Paskistan rather then fooling with stuff like this.

Oct 05, 2013 7:34am EDT  --  Report as abuse
jertho wrote:

people like you are really becoming seriously idiotic, denying every claim that….holy cow, maybe some of the things we do effect the enviornment in a negatve way??!?!! what a revalation!!! seriously, you’re not a scientist, and the bee problem makes global warming look like a walk in the park, we can adapt to warmer climates, abandon costal towns and generally deal with the effects of it, but without bees, its bye bye humanity, like it or not, you live in a biosphere, with a finite amount of space, we can effect it, there are over 7 billion of us. and finally, I’m willing to wager you are a conservative, in fact I’m certain of it, because it is the only ideology that denys such simple notions. theres a game I like to play with you people, give me a name of ANY scientist climate change denier (one of the lowly 3%) and I can, within minutes, draw a DIRECT line from them to dirty energy interests, it NEVER fails, so go ahead, try it.

Oct 05, 2013 1:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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