Scientists to get £1.8m to study effect of pesticides on bees' brains
• The demise of bee colonies worldwide is of growing concern as it could prove catastrophic for humanity. Picture: Getty
The experts in neuroscience at Dundee University are to research the possibility that chemicals could be harming the bees by affecting the learning capacity and performance of their brains.
There are fears that pesticides are affecting the ability of bees to navigate, communicate and forage for food – hastening their decline in numbers.
Scientists believe the results of the study could also have implications for human health.
It was revealed only last month by the British Beekeepers Association that 17.3 per cent of honey bee colonies across the UK were lost over the winter.
The study is one of nine projects to share in a 10 million funding package announced yesterday as part of National Insect Week.
Pesticides are screened to make sure they are non-lethal to bees before they are passed for use.
However, Dr Chris Connolly of Dundee University's centre for neuroscience said the research team would be examining whether a non-lethal combination of chemicals used in agriculture may be causing unexpected damage to the insects.
He said: "Many insecticides work by interfering with information flow in the brains of insects – either increasing or decreasing their brain activity.
"We will be looking at whether chronic exposure to chemicals used to control mites, combined with levels of agricultural pesticides that are not themselves lethal, may act together to magnify their affects on bee brain function."
The study will include fitting tiny radio frequency ID tags on bees, which will record when they come in and out of the nest, while the insects will also be weighed to see how successful they are at bringing back food.
Working with the Scottish Beekeepers Association, the researchers will also carry out a survey of how hives perform and will compare the results to local conditions, including the pesticides being used in the surrounding area.
Dr Connolly warned: "If bees were to die out, our food security would be seriously compromised.
"We rely exclusively on bees to pollinate such a large number of our staple foods and the only alternative, which is hand pollination, is not really an option."
He added that the results of the study could also have implications for human health. "Although pesticides are designed not to work on humans, synergistic interactions may amplify toxicity up to 1,000-fold," he said.
The funding is being provided by the Insect Pollinators Initiative, a joint scheme involving the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust.