Biologists at the University of California San Diego have demonstrated for the first time that a widely used pesticide can significantly impair the ability of otherwise healthy honey bees to fly, raising concerns about how pesticides affect their capacity to pollinate and the long-term effects on the health of honey bee colonies.

Previous research has shown that foraging honey bees that ingested neonicotinoid pesticides, crop insecticides that are commonly used in agriculture, were less likely to return to their home nest, leading to a decrease in foragers.

A study published in Scientific Reports describes in detail how the neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam damages honey bees. Thiamethoxam is used in crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton. To test the hypothesis that the pesticide impairs flight ability, the researchers designed and constructed a flight mill (a bee flight-testing instrument) from scratch. This allowed them to fly bees under consistent and controlled conditions.

Months of testing and data acquisition revealed that typical levels of neonicotinoid exposure, which bees could experience when foraging on agricultural crops — but below lethal levels — resulted in substantial damage to the honey bee's ability to fly. The honey bee’s survival depends on its ability to fly in order to collect food. It is also critical in crop and wild plant pollination.

Long-term exposure to the pesticide over one to two days reduced the bees' ability to fly. Short-term exposure briefly increased their activity levels. Bees flew farther, but based upon other studies, more erratically.

Honey bees carry out fundamentally vital roles in nature by providing essential ecosystem functions, including global pollination of crops and native plants. Declines in managed honey bee populations have raised concerns about future impacts on the environment, food security and human welfare.

Neonicotinoid insecticides are neurotoxic and used around the world on broad varieties of crops, including common fruits and vegetables, through spray, soil and seed applications. Evidence of these insecticides has been found in the nectar, pollen and water that honey bees collect.

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