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Tiny technology protects bees from insecticides

In a new study from Cornell University, experts have developed an antidote to protects bees from deadly insecticides, which cause beekeepers to lose around a third of their hives every year on average.

The pollen-sized technology has been demonstrated to effectively protect bees from all insecticides, and has inspired a new company, Beemmunity.

“This is a low-cost, scalable solution which we hope will be a first step to address the insecticide toxicity issue and contribute to the protection of managed pollinators,” said study senior author Minglin Ma.

Bees and other pollinators are a critical component of the global food supply, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.

According to the researchers, studies show that wax and pollen in 98 percent of hives in the U.S. are contaminated with an average of six pesticides, which also lower a bee’s immunity to devastating varroa mites and pathogens. 

The research was focused on organophosphate-based insecticides, which account for about a third of the insecticides on the market. Study co-author Professor Scott McArt noted that five insecticides currently pose substantial risks to bees, two of which are organophosphates.

The team developed a uniform pollen-sized microparticle filled with enzymes that detoxify organophosphate insecticides before they are absorbed and harmful to the bees. The particle has a protective casing that allows the enzymes to move past the bee’s stomach, where they would normally be broken down.

The microparticles can be mixed with pollen patties or sugar water. Once they the midgut, the enzymes can act to break down and detoxify the organophosphates.

In the lab, bees that were fed the microparticles with a high dose of the enzyme had a 100 percent survival rate after exposure to the insecticide malathion. Meanwhile, unprotected control bees died in a matter of days.

Beemmunity takes the concept one step further. Instead of filling the microparticles with enzymes that break down an insecticide, the particles have a shell made with insect proteins and are filled with a special absorptive oil, creating a kind of micro-sponge. 

Since many insecticides, including widely-used neonicotinoids, are designed to target insect proteins, the microparticle shell draws in the insecticide where it is contained within the casing. Eventually, the sequestered toxins are simply excreted in bee feces. 

“We have a solution whereby beekeepers can feed their bees our microparticle products in pollen patties or in a sugar syrup, and it allows them to detoxify the hive of any pesticides that they might find,” said study co-author James Webb, who is also the CEO of Beemmunity.

The research is published in the journal Nature Food.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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