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
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.”
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."
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Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries. 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.
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