Bee research at York informs global policy debate on pesticides

photo of a bee on a flower
Bee research conducted at York is making a buzz on the global policy stage. Earlier this month, the environment secretary in the UK revealed that the country will back a total EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in fields across Europe. This is in contrast to a few years ago, when the UK opposed the EU’s ban on using neonicotinoids on flowering crops. Part of this change in heart has been attributed to recent research conducted by Biology Professor Amro Zayed and his team in the Faculty of Science at York University.

photo of Amro Zayed

Amro Zayed

In summer 2017, Zayed’s team published an article in Science that revealed that worker and queen honeybees exposed to field realistic levels of neonicotinoids die sooner, reducing the health of the entire colony. They were also surprised to find that the neonicotinoid contaminated pollen collected by the honeybees came not from crops grown from neonicotinoid treated seeds, but plants growing in areas adjacent to those crops. The study received extensive media coverage around the world.

“Before our study, there was some controversy about the role of neonicotinoid insecticides in honeybee colony deaths in Ontario and other parts of North America, especially because some critics dismissed studies as unrealistic,” says Zayed. “We needed season-long monitoring of neonics in bee colonies to determine the typical exposure scenarios that occur in the field — which we were able to do in our study.”

The UK’s Expert Committee on Pesticides referenced the importance of Zayed’s study in contributing new knowledge about the risk of neonicotinoids on pollinators. In their published assessment, the Committee wrote that Zayed’s “study adds to a growing literature implying adverse effects on honey bee health at exposure levels compatible with those measured in the environment; persistence of neonicotinoid pesticides in non-target plants was evident in the data presented.”

The YorkU team also discovered that the combination of neonicotinoids and a specific fungicide pose a highly toxic cocktail to bees. The UK’s Expert Committee on Pesticides noted that Zayed’s research represents “the first substantive evidence of this kind from the field and is an observation that lies outwith the regulatory framework.”

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