Honey Bees Tracked With Tiny Radar Antennae
July 29, 2013

Tracking Devices To Help Study Impact Of Insecticides On Bees

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A team of biologists are outfitting honey bees with miniature radar antennae, hoping to discover how the insects are being impacted by controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

According to Richard Gray, Science Correspondent with The Telegraph, researchers from Rothamsted Research in the UK and the Free University in Germany are gluing lightweight radar transponders to the bees' backs as part of their research.

The transponders are less than one-inch long, Gray said, and thus far they have been able to accurately track the flights of individual honey bees. However, the devices have also revealed the insects - which have experienced a dramatic population decline over the past quarter-century - tend to become disoriented and have difficulty navigating after being exposed to the neuro-active insecticides.

The researchers report upon eating syrup contaminated with the pesticides, which are chemically related to nicotine, bees are unable to use their ability to recall specific landmarks in their surroundings to return to their hives. As a result, they tend to fly around in random circles rather than travel along direct routes, insect neurobiologist Randolf Menzel and his colleagues explained.

"We tested around 200 bees, both control bees and pesticide treated bees. We find the control bees are just fantastic - they use their landscape and their vector memory and they do fine," Menzel told Gray. "The treated bees, depending on the doses of the substance, are more confused. They usually do quite well when they fly along the vector but when they need to use their landscape memory, then they become lost."

"It seems to me that neonicotinoids are endangering honey bees," he added.

As Menzel explained to The Telegraph, bees normally use two different types of memory in order to find their way around: vector memory, which he compares to auto-pilot, and landscape memory pieced together during previous foraging flights

As the insects are increasingly exposed to neonicotinoids, however, the German professor fears they will begin losing their ability to seek out food and bring it back to their hives. As a result, the bees could find themselves in a weakened state, and less able to endure inclement weather or diseases.

"Earlier this year the European Union voted to ban the use of neonicotinoids over fears they are harming bees, but the UK government did not support the ban, saying more research was needed," Gray said.

In related news, Damian Carrington of The Guardian reported Dr. Helen Thompson, a government scientist involved in the research used to argue against the pesticide ban, would be leaving the UK Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) to join pesticide manufacturer Syngenta on September 1.

Thompson led a field trial of the effect of neonicotinoids on bees, Carrington said, and her research was used by UK officials to argue against an insecticide ban approved by 15 other European Union (EU) countries. In the wake of the announcement she would be joining Syngenta, some questioned the scientist's impartiality.

"Government policy should be informed by unbiased and disinterested scientific research," Joan Walley, a Member of Parliament (MP) representing Stoke-on-Trent North, told Carrington. "This principle is undermined if the government research agency is too close to the pesticides industry and if scientists are zigzagging between the two."

In a rebuttal, a FERA spokesperson said, "Dr. Thompson's move is a reflection of her expertise and international reputation within the scientific community. There is no conflict of interest. There are very specific rules for civil servants governing the acceptance of appointments outside the civil service."

Furthermore, she was reportedly pulled from any projects that could result in a potential conflict of interest immediately after informing FERA of her plans on July 4. A Syngenta spokesman told the Guardian Thomspon would have "no direct professional contact" with her former employer for one year, and would also not be working on any projects that involved either the UK or the EU.