VIEWPOINT

THE FIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE

Rothamsted responds to inquiries about a research paper that uncovers how a bumblebee is able to resist an insecticide designed to control crop pests

  • 25
  • NOV
  • 2017

In a PNAS paper released online this week, a multinational team of researchers report how their work on a bumblebee’s resistance to a particular insecticide “could spur future development of a new generation of safer pyrethroids that selectively target pests, but not beneficial species”.

Various pyrethroids can exhibit widely different toxicities on insect species, say the team: “Most notably, bees are highly sensitive to most pyrethroids, but are resistant to tau-fluvalinate (τ-FVL), a highly selective pyrethroid used to control varroa mites in beehives worldwide.”

But the mechanism of bee resistance to τ-FVL has largely remained elusive, until now. The team, from China, the US, Canada and Russia, has uncovered how the common eastern bumblebee, Bombus impatiens, is able to resist the action of τ-FVL.

The findings, say the researchers, “contribute to understanding a long-standing enigma of selective pyrethroid toxicity in bees and may be used to guide future modification of pyrethroids to achieve highly selective control of pests with minimal effects on nontarget organisms.”

Wu et al, 2017, PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1711699114, Molecular basis of selective resistance of the bumblebee BiNav1 sodium channel to tau-fluvalinate.

Rothamsted Research was asked to comment on inquiries from the media:
“I’m interested to know whether they think pesticides that selectively target non-bee insects could have a role in reversing the decline in bee populations?”

“Realistically, would such pesticides be effective enough for use in large-scale agriculture? Also, considering the current debate around banning pesticides, should we be wary about research that aims to ‘fix’ existing pesticides instead of looking for alternatives?”

“As an afterthought, this paper looks at bumblebees, but a lot of the conversation about bee decline focuses on honey bees. Would the mechanism described in this paper apply to honey bees as well?”

Comment from Rothamsted Research

Lin Field, insect molecular biologist and Head of Biointeractions and Crop Protection (BCP), one of Rothamsted's four science departments:
"Pesticides that selectively target pests and not beneficial insects are a great idea and, indeed, we are getting to the point where this is becoming achievable.

"What most people don’t realise is that, within a “class” of insecticides, there is huge variation in toxicity to bees. Thus, imidacloprid is much more toxic to bees than is thiacloprid, even though they are both neonicotinoids; and deltamethrin is much more toxic than tau-fluvalinate, even though both are pyrethroids.

"Such differences may be due to either different interactions between the chemicals and the target protein or to differences in the metabolism of the chemicals.

"There is every reason to think that highly selective insecticides could be developed and used in the field to achieve pest control with reduced off-target effects.

However, you can‘t necessarily extrapolate from one species to another. So, the results reported in this paper for bumblebees would need to be checked to see if the same applies to honeybees."

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

About BBSRC
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.