Avoid pesticides to save baby bumblebees, says a new study

Lisa Walden
Photo credit: itsabreeze photography - Getty Images

From Country Living

Pesticides sprayed on plants and flowers can damage baby bumblebee brains, affecting their ability to perform simple tasks as adults, a new study by Imperial College London has found.

The groundbreaking research focused on Europe's most common bumblebee species, the buff-tailed bumblebee, to see whether any common pesticides used by gardeners could delay their learning. In order to take a closer look, the scientists used a micro-CT scanning technology to analyse the growth of a bumblebee's small brain.

They found that...

  • Bumblebee brains grew abnormally when exposed to pesticides during the early stages of their life
  • Baby bees can feel the effects of the contaminated food brought back to the colony, making them poorer at performing tasks later in life
  • Bees that were fed pesticides when they were developing as larvae showed significantly impaired learning ability compared to those that were not

The Buff-tailed bumblebee is a widespread species that visits many different types of flowers for pollen and nectar. Sadly, because of the high level of pesticides, many baby bumblebees may be unable to successfully search for food as they grow older due to brain damage.

Lead researcher Dr Richard Gill, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: "Bee colonies act as superorganisms, so when any toxins enter the colony, these have the potential to cause problems with the development of the baby bees within it.

"Worryingly in this case, when young bees are fed on pesticide-contaminated food, this caused parts of the brain to grow less, leading to older adult bees possessing smaller and functionally impaired brains; an effect that appeared to be permanent and irreversible.

"These findings reveal how colonies can be impacted by pesticides weeks after exposure, as their young grow into adults that may not be able to forage for food properly. Our work highlights the need for guidelines on pesticide usage to consider this route of exposure."

Photo credit: Paula French / EyeEm - Getty Images

What should we use instead of pesticides?

This study has highlighted the truths about pesticides in the garden, but what are the bee-friendly alternatives we should be opting for? Some of the simple things you can do in your garden to keep the bugs away include...

1. Placing a thin layer of netting over plants
Fine netting such as cheese cloth, placed over your vegetable patch or flower bed will protect seedlings from insects, cats, birds and other flying insects. It's a great natural alternative to using pesticides in the garden.

2. Companion planting
Some plants have the natural ability to repel certain types of insects. For example, planting garlic among vegetables will help to fend off Japanese beetles, aphids and spiders, while basil planted near tomatoes will help to repel tomato horn worms.

3. Growing wildflowers
Flowers
like oxeye daisies, red clovers, poppies, and wild carrots can serve as all-natural pesticides by attracting useful insects to your garden. Best of all, wildflowers look incredibly stunning and create a haven for bees.

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