Oct 11

Scientists are to investigate a possible connection between diesel fumes and the global decline of honey bees.

Honey bee image

Honey bee worker feeding

A proposed three-year study by scientists at the University of Southampton will attempt to discover whether or not tiny particles, known as nanoparticles, produced by diesel engines are affecting honey bee numbers across the globe.

Faulty navigation: finding their way through the fumes

Despite being widespread, honey bees are under serious threat. Human activities, including the accidental introduction to the UK of the devastating varroa mite Varroa jacobsoni, have long been blamed for declines in bee populations, and it appears that the production of diesel fumes may soon be added to the list.

Honey bees are great navigators, and foraging bees are known to perform complicated dances to other members of their hives to direct them to newly discovered food supplies.  Yet scientists believe that nanoparticles from diesel fumes could be affecting the bees’ brains and their navigational abilities, preventing the worker bees from finding their way back to the hive.

Honey bee image

Honey bee performing a round dance

Chemical ecologist Dr Robbie Girling believes that the nanoparticles may also cause other problems for these social insects: “The diesel fumes may have a dual effect in that they may be mopping up flower smells in the air, making it harder for the bees to find their food sources.”

Flight of discovery

The study will call upon the expertise of biologists, nanotechnology researchers and ecologists at the university to test behaviour and neurological changes observed in honey bees when they are exposed to diesel fumes. Nanoparticle exposure at high doses is known to be damaging to the brains of other animals, and the scientists are keen to find out if the same is true for honey bees.

We want to find out if bees are affected in the same way – and answer the question of why bees aren’t finding their way back to the hive when they leave to find food,” said ecologist Professor Guy Poppy.

Honey bee image

Honey bee in flight carrying pollen

Double trouble

The decline in honey bee numbers is a sad state of affairs for biodiversity as a whole, with the reported loss of tens of thousands of beehives every year since 2007 potentially leading to a reduction in wildflower pollination. Yet it is also of great concern to human populations, as bees contribute billions to the world economy through the pollination of crops, honey production, and supporting employment. In the UK alone, bees are estimated to contribute £430 million a year in ecosystem services and honey.

The collapse of bee populations has been recorded across the globe, with an unexplained 35% drop in the number of U.S. hives in 2007, 2008 and 2009, yet extensive research to determine the exact causes of such declines has yet to be carried out. It is hoped that this new study might provide some answers which could contribute to the continued survival of this important species.

Read more on this story at BBC News – Southampton scientists probe link between diesel and bee decline.

View photos and videos of the honey bee on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author