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Scientists are starting to unravel the mystery of disappearing bees

As you’ve surely heard by now, bees have been having a tough go of it this century. In fact, they’ve been disappearing at alarming rates.

The fact that they’re suddenly dying off would be alarming enough even if they weren’t important for humanity. But in case you don’t know why bees matter — a lot — to humans, it’s not just about honey. Bees are also crucial pollinators, and humanity’s agricultural output around the world depends in large part on the free labour they provide.

In other words, if bees disappear, crops could collapse.

And bees have been going missing from their ecological niche at such an unusual rate that there’s even a name for the phenomenon: Colony Collapse Disorder. There are all kinds of speculations as to what might be causing it, from pesticides to GMOs to cellphones.

Thankfully, we have this thing called science which can help us sort out all the conflicting ideas as to what might be at the root of this problem.

And it’s starting to look like the answer is — drumroll please — good old pesticides.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that chemicals specifically designed to kill insects might also end up harming pollinators. But now, thanks to a study that was just published in the UK, we have a better understanding of just how this happens.

It seems widely-used neonicotinoid-based pesticides are leading to some unexpected consequences for the bees that visit crops for which the pesticide has been used.

The causal chain is as simple as it is unsettling. It turns out neonicotinoid pesticides don’t just sit in the soil; a certain amount of the dose ends being absorbed into the plant itself. And ultimately, this leads to trace contamination of – you guessed it – the plant’s pollen. This, in turn, leads to exposure and reabsorption by visiting bees, and it so happens that neonicotinoids are biologically active in bees, and tend to mess with their reproductive cycle to such an extent that egg production is reduced by about 25 percent in some cases.

And fewer eggs means fewer bees every year.

So it seems once again that “harmless” chemicals are having an unforeseen effect on the environment. Hopefully, more research into this will follow, so that regulators can better decide what to do about these neonicotinoid-based pesticides. An outright ban might be a long way off, but that will largely be determined by what future researchers are able to learn.

In the meantime, maybe shoo bees out the window rather than squashing them. We’re gonna need ’em.

Boris Smokrovic

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