Past studies have already demonstrated how pesticides like neonicotinoids harm bees. Monsanto’s glyphosate, which only targets enzymes in bacteria and plants, must be a safer choice for bees, right? Not so fast.
In a new paper, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin outline how glyphosate harms the microbiota needed by honeybees for growing and resisting pathogens. Not only is glyphosate playing a big role in the decline of bees across the planet, but it’s also destroying their habitats.
In the study, the researchers painted colored dots on the backs of hundreds of adult worker bees and exposed them to glyphosate levels widely seen in crop fields, roadsides, and yards. After recapturing the bees three days later, they found that the herbicide had dramatically reduced their healthy gut microbiota.
Half of the eight dominant healthy bacteria species found in bees were diminished, with the critical microbe involved in digestion and pathogen defense, Snodgrassella alvi, being hit the hardest.
In addition to having far lower levels of beneficial bacteria in their guts, these bees also died more often when subsequently exposed to a common type of bacteria and other infectious pathogens. For example, while half of healthy bees managed to survive the introduction of the Serratia marcescens bacteria, only one tenth of those who had been exposed to glyphosate were able to survive the bacteria.
Although this study was focused on honeybees, the researchers say that bumblebees have very similar microbiomes, so it’s safe to assume that they would be affected by glyphosate in much the same way.
Researcher Erick Motta said that better guidelines for glyphosate use are needed, particularly where bee exposure is concerned. The current guidelines were crafted on the assumption that the chemical doesn’t harm bees, and this study shows that simply is not the case.
This summer, a Chinese study found that the larvae of honeybees grew more slowly when they were exposed to glycosylate, and they died more often. All of this came after a 2015 study that found that adult bees who were exposed to glyphosate at levels found in fields experienced cognitive impairments that prevented them from returning to their hives.
University of Sussex Professor Dave Goulson, a biologist and insect expert, said: “It now seems that we have to add glyphosate to the list of problems that bees face. This study is also further evidence that the landscape-scale application of large quantities of pesticides has negative consequences that are often hard to predict.”
He pointed out the gut bacteria plays an essential role maintaining good health in bees just like it does in humans. Therefore, finding these bacteria are sensitive to glyphosate is highly concerning. After all, pollination by bees is crucial for roughly 75 percent of the planet’s food crops. Experts say that without bees, life as we know it would no longer exist. Diets would be significantly poorer without nutritious food like fruits and vegetables, as well as other crops like chocolate and coffee.
In addition, bees are essential pieces of many other ecological processes – for example, breaking down leaves and dead animals, recycling their nutrients and making them available again.
It’s a huge problem, with glyphosate being the most-used pesticide on the planet. More than 700,000 tons of it are produced each year, and farmers have been spraying it on their crops for more than 40 years.
Given the widespread use of this weed killer, the problem is expected to get worse. Bee populations have already been hit hard, dropping dramatically in many areas of the world. Beekeepers in America have noted that millions of bees have mysteriously disappeared, while Chinese farmers have now taken to hand-pollinating fruit trees because there aren’t enough bees left to get the job done.
The new bee study is just the latest in a string of bad news for Monsanto, who is facing hundreds of federal and court cases over the herbicide’s link to cancer. Last month, a court ordered the firm to pay a terminally ill man $289 million in damages after ruling the chemical had caused his cancer. Glyphosate is killing people directly and indirectly, and not much is being done to try to control it.
Goulson added: "People should be jumping up and down and concerned over this, because these insects do so much. Really, ecosystems will collapse, and we cannot survive without insects. People may not like insects – often they don't – but they ought to appreciate that insects do an awful lot for us."
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