Pollen-sized particles give bees immunity to insecticides
Bees play a critical role in pollinating many of plants that humans eat and are therefore key to food security, but populations continue to decline rapidly around the world. A number of factors are contributing to this, including habitat loss and drought, but a tiny new ingestible particle developed at Cornell University takes aim at a key one, by detoxifying deadly insecticides before they can do these important critters harm.
Common insecticides like neonicotinoids, which the EU banned in 2016, are used to protect growing crops from hungry insects, but often bees get caught in the crossfire. These toxic substances interfere with the molecules that help bees produce energy, and can disrupt their sleep cycles and leave them immobile and starving.
The new technology is described as an antidote for these types of chemicals, with the researchers first focusing on what are known as organophosphate-based insecticides, which make up around one third of the market. The Cornell University scientists developed a microparticle the size of pollen, which can be packed with enzymes that break down and completely detoxify these insecticides before the bee absorbs them.
The particles can be mixed into pollen patties or sugar water and fed to the bees, with a protective casing safeguarding the enzymes as they pass through the stomach, which is acidic and would otherwise break them down. They instead travel safely through to the midgut, where digestion takes place, and the enzymes can go to work breaking down and detoxifying the organophosphates.
This was first demonstrated through in vitro experiments and then on live bees in the lab, where the insects were fed both an organophosphate pesticide and the particles, while another control group was administered only the organophosphate pesticide. The scientists observed a 100 percent survival rate in the bees fed the particles, while all the unprotected control bees died in the following days.
“We have a solution whereby beekeepers can feed their bees our microparticle products in pollen patties or in a sugar syrup, and it allows them to detoxify the hive of any pesticides that they might find,” says James Webb, a co-author of the paper and CEO of Beemmunity, a spinoff company that is continuing to work on the technology.
Beemmunity is developing the technology to tackle an even broader range of insecticides. Many of these, including neonicotinoids, work by targeting insect proteins. To combat this, Beemmunity is developing particles that, instead of enzymes, feature a special absorptive oil, and a casing made from insect proteins. The idea is that rather than breaking the insecticide down, the particle soaks up and entraps the insecticide within the casing, which can then be safely passed by the bee.
“This is a low-cost, scalable solution which we hope will be a first step to address the insecticide toxicity issue and contribute to the protection of managed pollinators,” says senior author Minglin Ma.
Beemmunity is conducting trials across 240 hives in New Jersey this US summer, with plans to launch its products in February 2022, all going well.
The research was published in the journal Nature Food.
Source: Cornell University