Local researcher examines relationship between pesticides and bee behaviors

Research out of Nebraska could be changing what we know about honey bees. Erin Ingram helped author a study examining what effects insecticides might have on the insects. (courtesy photo)
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August 28, 2015 - 6:45am

Erin Ingram is an entomologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Recently, her and a team of fellow researchers set out to determine if there's a link between pesticides associated with orchards across the United States and Midwest and the behaviors of honey bees. NET News reporter Ben Bohall sat down with Ingram to talk about the study.


NET NEWS: So often when we think about bees, we think about their colonies and how they’re a species that relies heavily on communication. One of your study’s findings is suggesting that these types of pesticide can alter the way bees interact with each other. How so?

ERIN INGRAM, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Entomologist: We looked at effects of a class of pesticides in the lab. We did not look in the field, which is very important to make note of. We didn’t look at what happens in the colony, we looked at bees in petri dishes. But we looked at social interaction - as bees will touch tongues and share food and sometimes communicate that way. They also put their antennae on one another. We’d have two in a petri dish together and we’d look at times where they were close enough to have those social interactions. We saw that with application of these pesticides, even at very low levels, they were decreasing the amount of time spent in those social interactions. As far as social interactions go, that’s what we were concerned with. Time they spent close to one another.

NET NEWS: Do we know why that might be then?

ERIN INGRAM: My take on it from watching lots and lots of hours of video tracking of these bees was that they just spend less time moving, in general. That was consistent across all three of the pesticides I looked at. When they’re not moving, they might be just grooming themselves in place. They sometimes are also just paralyzed. So they’re just in the petri dish, standing there. When they’re not moving towards one another obviously they can’t meet to have any kind of social interaction. Until they recover from that, in the field, they’re easy prey. They also maybe can’t make it back home since they’re knocked down in the field. So that potentially has a lot of impact on whether they’re able to function normally in a field or not.

Erin Ingram is an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Ingram and her colleagues discovered with application of certain pesticides, even at very low levels, honey bees spent less time socially interacting with each other. (courtesy photo)

NET NEWS: How might honey bees be exposed to certain pesticides? Do they typically reside in areas where they’re present?

ERIN INGRAM: The pesticides that we were specifically looking at are used for orchard pests. Now honey bees generally don’t stay in orchards for prolonged periods. They get trucked in, they get set out, they pollinate during a bloom period, then they get put back on trucks and taken to the next place to pollinate. Researchers at other institutions have found evidence of low levels of these particular pesticides in things like apple pollen. So we know that bees are running into them. What we were aiming to do in this is get a better sense of what behavioral effects might occur because of exposure to even low levels of these pesticides.

NET NEWS: There seems to be an increasing awareness about honey bee populations, and pollinators in general, running into man-made problems such as this one. Why is that?  Why is this an important issue to be aware of?

ERIN INGRAM: We’re very dependent on honey bees specifically because they’re a managed pollinator. They get trucked into these orchards. They do the job. Without their pollination, there would be no fruit. There would be no seeds. There wouldn’t be nuts. A lot of the food that we treasure and enjoy.  They’re also really high in certain nutritional value like vitamins A, C, and E we can’t get from anything other than insect-pollinated foods. Without them, what’s on your dinner plate is kind of bland and boring and quite frankly not very nutritious. The average person should be very concerned about pollinators, specifically the honey bee because of their value to agriculture.

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