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Bees flying high

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The decline of many species of bees is particularly relevant in current conservation circles.  The factors surrounding the decline include: the loss of habitat, spread of diseases and finally the presence of pesticides in the environment.

The great risk which pesticides were presumed to cause spurred a motion to impose an EU wide two-year ban on three pesticides which contained neonicotinoid. The chemical, neonicotinoid, is similar in structure to nicotine and as a toxin released by plants, is damaging to insects.

A recent study by Newcastle University has further explained the effects of pesticides and chemicals on bees, focusing greatly on the chemical neonicotinoid. In the study neuroscientists tested the preference of a sugar solution containing neonicotinoid with that of one without the chemical, to both bumblebees and honeybees. The study showed that the solution containing the chemical was actually greatly preferred as a food source. This startling revelation has proved to be very dangerous to the health of many bee populations.

Professor Geraldine Wright commented on why this is the case stating, “Bees cannot taste neonicotinoids in their food and therefore do not avoid these pesticides. This placed them at risk of poisoning when they eat contaminated nectar.” The bees preference to the chemical is believed to be caused by the same response seen with humans and their addiction to nicotine. As more of the chemical is consumed, the addiction is seen to increase.

The study also noted that honeybees were affected less than other species of bees, with the chemical seen to prevent the growth of bee colonies. Despite the ban of neonicotinoid containing pesticides, a large amount of residual chemical is still believed to exist in the environment from previous pesticide use. The ban on pesticides is still currently in place, however is up for review, a lesser of two evils has to be decided. Does the benefits of increased yield because of pesticides outweigh the negative effect on the health of bee populations?

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Chris Glass

Science Editor 2014/15

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