The life of a bee is dominated by its senses. The sweet smell of nectar and the dazzling colors of a flower reign supreme in their world, since they lead bees straight to food.
But following their drive for nectar is turning deadly. New research shows that bees are actually attracted to the same insecticides that kill them.
Two studies published this week in Nature revealed that bees can sense neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticides in the world. These insecticides are believed to be responsible for the worldwide decline of bees, but like a moth to a flame, or an alcoholic to a liquor bottle, bees simply can't resist them.
The first study analyzed how honeybees, wild bees, and bumblebees behaved in canola fields treated with these insecticides. Few wild bees pollinated the insecticide-treated plants, and both wild bees and bumblebees reproduced at much lower rates than normal. (More on why that's important in a moment.)
The second revealed an even more troubling effect of neonicotinoids: Bees actually prefer food laced with these insecticides, even though they caused the bees to eat less and die sooner.
Taken together, these studies paint a truly disturbing picture of the state of bees in our environment. The tiny pollinators are seeking out plants treated with the same chemicals that keep them from reproducing, and ultimately, kill them.
This isn't the first evidence to show neonicotinoids in a negative light. These insecticides have such a bad reputation that the European Union temporarily banned them in 2013.
The reason for all the suspicion around these chemicals? A mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.
Bees are dying at alarming rates—and beekeepers and scientists haven't figured out exactly why. The population of bees hovers at only 2.5 million today. That's half of what it was 75 years ago.
As the number of bees dwindles, the health of our food system hangs in the balance. Pollination from bees is a crucial part of agriculture—these small insects are responsible for $15 billion worth of crops every year.
To give you an idea of the scope we're talking about, here are just a few crops that depend on pollination from bees:
Though the neonic data is troubling, most scientists don't think colony collapse disorder can be blamed on insecticides alone. The popular theory is that a combination of factors, including climate change and new pathogens and diseases in addition to neonicotinoids, is responsible for the death of thousands of bees.
While scientists say they need to do more research to keep bees from dying out, you can do your part by buying organic. Because pesticides or insecticides can't be used on organic crops, these plants are inherently more bee friendly.
Photo credit: Edwyn Anderton via Flickr