New Study Finds a Banned Pesticide Affects Learning Abilities in Honeybees but Not Bumblebees

April 6, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl


The first of its kind, this study has implications for insecticide regulation.

Researchers from the University of Sussex have found that exposure to a pesticide banned by the European Union (EU), significantly affects the learning abilities of honeybees. The findings also suggested that, although honeybees were affected, bumblebees weren't affected after exposure to the same pesticide.

The team of scientists investigated the effects of a neonicotinoid insecticide, known as clothianidin, which the EU had banned for use on flowering crops in 2013 for safety reasons. The researchers exposed both honeybee and bumblebee workers to the pesticide for 11-12 days. After that, they assessed the learning abilities of the bees using a test to see how well the bees could associate a particular odor with a sugar reward.

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They found that clothianidin impaired the honeybee workers’ ability to learn the association, but surprisingly, clothianidin had no effect on the bumblebee workers.

In a press release, Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex said, "Our research has important implications for global regulatory assessments which generally use honeybees as a model for all bees.”

"We show for the first time how this banned pesticide, while having a significant negative effect on learning in honeybees, had no adverse effects on learning in bumblebees,” Goulson went on to say.

“This is unexpected, since previous work suggested that this pesticide has a more pronounced impact on colonies of bumblebees than on those of honeybees. During a time when the EU regulation of certain pesticides is being reviewed, we must ensure regulators learn from this research and do not readily extrapolate findings from one bee species to others."

The European Food Safety Authority announced earlier this year that they would review the safety and use of three previously banned pesticides, including clothianidin, and would report back towards the end of January 2017 with their findings.

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