It's an important discovery for protecting bee populations vital to agriculture.

By Jillian Kramer
Updated August 15, 2017
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We know by now that bees—both honeybees and bumblebees—are instrumental to our food supply. The winged creatures pollinate vegetables, fruits, and flowers—and without their help, many of our crops wouldn't survive. And yet, despite the crucial role that bees play in our food supply, new research shows that some farmers are actively endangering bees' lives by using a popular pesticide called neonicotinoids.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, shows that bumblebee queens who are exposed to neonicotinoids—pesticides used to coat the seeds of corn, soybeans, canola, and much more—are 26 percent less likely to lay eggs compared to queens who weren't exposed to neonicotinoids. And of course, if queen bees aren't laying eggs, the bee colony can't survive over the long term.

To come to this conclusion, Royal Holloway University of London scientists studied bumblebee queens in a laboratory. They fed the queens a diet of syrup made with traces of thiamethoxam—a type of neonicotinoid pesticide—in amounts that the bees might encounter outside as they pollinate fields treated with neonicotinoids.

Afterward, the researchers wrote in the study, "exposure to thiamethoxam caused a 26 percent reduction in the proportion of queens that laid eggs." And that's very bad news for the future of bees. "Modeling the impacts of a 26 percent reduction in colony founding on population dynamics dramatically increased the likelihood of population extinction," the researchers warn. "This shows that neonicotinoids can affect this critical stage in the bumblebee lifecycle and may have significant impacts on population dynamics," which could force some farmers to change pesticides.

The European Union in 2013 temporarily banned neonicotinoids. Now, the union is considering making that ban permanent, but many pesticide companies and farmers don't want to see that happen. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to review neonicotinoids and "pursue risk mitigation," according to its site.