honey bees

A new micro-sponge protects bees from insecticides.

ITHACA, N.Y. — A new technology could make some bee species immune to many pesticides, which currently cause beekeepers to lose about a third of hives annually.

Studies show in 98% of hives nationwide, wax and pollen are contaminated with an average of six pesticides, which can kill bees or reduce bee health.

The solution: a microparticle sponge that, when fed to honey bees in sugar water or pollen patties, could give them immunity to pesticides.

The discovery has stirred widespread excitement, but critics say the invention could have unintended negative consequences, especially for wild bees.

James Webb, 27, a recent biological and environmental engineering graduate from Cornell University, came up with the idea when he was a student and co-authored a study about his findings in the journal Nature Food.

“Quite simply, I hope this means less hive losses and more bees,” said Webb.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Webb spoke with a British accent.

The work began with an idea. Webb said most of the research he saw about bees highlighted problems but didn’t offer solutions. He wanted change.

His first idea was to use a specific enzyme to break down harmful pesticides bees consume. Webb brought his idea to Minglin Ma, associate professor of biomaterials at Cornell, who would become his adviser. Other researchers joined the team.

The researchers developed a tiny, pollen-sized microparticle filled with enzymes to detoxify a group of pesticides called organophosphates, accounting for about a third of pesticides on the market.

The team mixed the microparticles with pollen patties or sugar water, then fed them to microcolonies of bumble bees. Inside the bee’s digestive system, the enzymes broke down poison.

The trials were successful. Of the bees exposed to organophosphates, 100% of those fed the antidote survived, while unprotected bees died.

But Webb wanted to find an easier method, one that could work across all pesticide classes. He founded a company, Beemmunity, and invented an improved method.

Instead of filling microparticles with enzymes, he now creates tiny micro-sponges made from insect proteins and special absorbent oils and feeds them to bees in pollen patties or sugar water. Once in the digestive tract, the sponges absorb poisons that the bees eventually excrete naturally.

This method can be used across many pesticide classes.

This summer, Beemmunity is working on a field study with about 220 honey bee hives run by beekeepers across the Eastern Seaboard. If successful, Webb plans to launch commercial products by February of 2022.

Ma, Webb’s adviser, said in a statement the discovery could “contribute to the protection of managed pollinators.”

But what about wild and native pollinators?

Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees, a Washington company selling mason and leafcutter bees, said he thinks the discovery is “bad news” because the products likely can’t be fed to most of North America’s 4,000 wild species.

Hunter said he fears the discovery could inadvertently “give life” to extended use of organophosphates.

Andony Melathopoulos, pollinator health expert at Oregon State University, also expressed concern for “bees and other beneficial insects that are not fed the supplement.”

In response, Webb agreed attracting wild pollinators to feed would be “tricky,” and said he’s currently researching how to do so.

Webb also acknowledged “there’s a danger this could give license to pesticide spraying,” but said farmers are already not spraying more than they need to because chemicals are expensive.

Melathopoulos and Hunter also said it’s not clear yet who would pay for the supplement: beekeepers, farmers or both.

Despite his concerns, Melathopoulos, of OSU, said he could see how the product “would open opportunities for growers in Oregon, many of which are stuck with insecticides that are older and generally toxic to bees.”

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