With Europe and the United States slow to ban the pesticides that science says is probably drastically harming our bee populations, could one of the world’s most venomous spiders hold one solution to saving our pollinators?
Anyone keeping up with the plight of our honeybees will be familiar with neonicotinoid pesticides, which scientific consensus says is probably one of the key culprits that are killing our honeybees. The pesticides, which are used in many parts of the world to help protect crops, appear to interfere with the complex neurological systems that allow the bees navigate, and are probably contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder. Unfortunately, while Europe has moved to ban certain neonicotinoids, the ban isn’t total and much of the rest of the world, including the United States, is still allowing the use of these pesticides under most conditions.
With some in the agricultural industry heavily opposed to an outright ban on neonicotinoids, scientists have started searching for alternatives to help our bees, and it turns out that one of the world’s most dangerous spiders, the Australian funnel web spider, may have a secret lurking in its venom.
A team of researchers from Newcastle University in England have been investigating biopesticides as a means to stave off farmland pests while being kinder to wildlife. Biopesticides, unlike traditional manufactured pesticides, are derived from materials that already have pesticide qualities, for instance baking soda or canola oil (technically, they are biopesticides themselves). Due to the fact that the active ingredients are naturally occurring, they often can be kinder to the environment because animals that are likely to come into contact with them frequently, for instance pollinating insects, will have built up an immunity or will be unaffected by them.
Working on this premise, the Newcastle University researchers found combining the toxin from the Australian funnel web spider with a protein (lectin) from a snowdrop plant creates a biopesticide that is still fatal to common farm pests but would appear to have absolutely no effect on the bees, this even when exposed to concentrations that are much higher than would be seen on a working farm.
Erich Nakasu, a PhD student at Newcastle University and lead researcher, is quoted as saying that the idea is promising but above all seems to be safe: “This is an oral pesticide so unlike some that get absorbed through the exoskeleton, the spider/snowdrop protein has to be ingested by the insects.” That immediately cuts the risk quite significantly. Even honey bee larvae, which have also demonstrated a resistance to the pesticide, break it down in their guts rather than it interfering with their (albeit limited) cognitive abilities.
“Previous studies have already shown that it is safe for higher animals, which means it has real potential as a pesticide and offers us a safe alternative to some of those currently on the market,” professor Angharad Gatehouse of Newcastle University’s School of Biology explained in a statement.
It’s estimated that bees conduct about 80% of the pollination work done by insects, and as a result are vital for the continued success of many of the world’s crops. To lose them would profoundly threaten food security. It is hoped that so-called biopesticides may provide a way forward for the agricultural sector without having to radically alter its current practices too widely, something that might be palatable to farmers who have predicted significant financial losses should they stop using neonicotinoids.
Europe currently has a two-year ban on neonicotinoid use, but that comes to an end in April of 2015. Many European powers including the UK government are leery of supporting a further ban, even going so far as to reject the mounting scientific data that neonicotinoids are harmful. The United States does not currently restrict or ban neonicotinoids, but a continual review is underway with some small progress having been made in recent months.
As scientists have previously said though, even if a ban was issued, and despite the several solutions that have emerged including this latest promising research, it will take a commitment to a combination of efforts to help rescue our honeybees.
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