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Study shows pesticide exposure can dramatically impact bees’ social behaviors

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Study shows pesticide exposure can dramatically impact bees’ social behaviors
November 8, 2018, Harvard University

A bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) worker foraging outdoors, outfitted with a unique tracking tag (BEEtag). Credit: James Crall

For bees, being social is everything.

Whether it’s foraging for food, caring for the young, using their bodies to generate heat or to fan the nest, or building and repairing nests, a does just about everything as a single unit.

While recent studies have suggested exposure to pesticides could have impacts on foraging behavior, a new study, led by James Crall, has shown that those effects may be just the tip of the iceberg.

A post-doctoral fellow working in the lab of Benjamin de Bivort, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Crall is the lead author of a study that shows exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides—the most commonly-used class of pesticides in agriculture—has profound effects on a host of social behaviors.

Using an innovative robotic platform to observe ‘ behavior, Crall and co-authors including de Bivort and Naomi Pierce, the Sidney A. and John H. Hessel Professor of Biology, showed that, following exposure to the pesticide, bees spent less time nursing larvae and were less social that other bees. Additional tests showed that exposure impaired bees ability to warm the nest, and to build insulating wax caps around the . The study is described in a November 9 paper in Science.

In addition to Crall, de Bivort and Pierce, the study was co-authored by Callin Switzer, Ph.D. ’18, Stacey Combes from UC Davis, former Organismic and Evolutionary Biology research assistants Robert L. Oppenheimer and Mackay Eyster and Harvard undergraduate Andrea Brown, ’19.

“These pesticides first came into use around the mid-1990s, and are now the most commonly-used class of insecticide around the globe,” Crall said. “Typically, they work through seed treatment—high concentrations are dosed on seeds, and one reasons farmers and pesticide companies like these compounds is because they are taken up systemically by the plants…so the idea is they provide whole-plant resistance. But the problem is they also show up in the pollen and nectar bees are feeding on.”

Over the past decade, Crall said, a number of studies have linked with disruptions in foraging, “but there were reasons to suspect that wasn’t the whole picture.”

“Foraging is only a part of what bumblebees do,” Crall said. “Those studies were picking up on the important effects these compounds were having on what’s going on outside the nest, but there’s a whole world of really important behaviors going on inside…and that’s a black box we wanted to open up a bit.”

Automated tracking of nest workers in a bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) colony. Credit: James Crall

To do it, Crall and colleagues developed a unique, benchtop system that allowed them to track the activity of bees in as many as a dozen colonies at a time.

“What we do is put a black and white tag with a simplified QR code, on the back of each bee,” he said. “And there’s a camera that can move over the colonies and track the behavior of each bee automatically using computer vision…so that allows us to look inside the nest.”

Using the system, Crall and colleagues were able to dose specific, individual bees with the pesticide and observe the changes in their behavior—less interaction with nest-mates and spending more time on the periphery of the colony—but those experiments are limited in several important ways.

“One is physiological,” Crall said. “Even though we were giving the bees realistic doses of pesticide, drinking your daily allotment of coffee in five minutes is going to be different than spreading it out over the course of the day, so giving one big dose might not be totally realistic. The other important one is that a bee colony is a functional unit. It doesn’t make sense to treat individuals, because what you’re losing when you do that is the natural social structure of the colony.”

With the robotic system, however, researchers can treat an entire colony as a single unit.

Each of the system’s 12 units, Crall said, houses a single colony where bees have access to two chambers—one to mimic the nest and the other to act as a foraging space.

“That lets us do multiple, colony-level exposure, and to do continuous monitoring,” Crall said. “We think this is much closer to how their natural behavior works, and it also allows us to automate behavioral tracking across multiple colonies at the same time.”

Just as in earlier studies, Crall said, exposed bees showed changes in activity levels and socialization, and spent more time on the fringes of the nest, but the tests also showed that the results were strongest overnight.

“Bees actually have a very strong circadian rhythm,” Crall explained. “So what we found was that, during the day, there was no statistically-observable effect, but at night, we could see that they were crashing. We don’t know yet whether (the pesticides) are disrupting circadian gene regulation or if this is just some, maybe physiological feedback…but it suggests that, just from a practical perspective, if we want to understand or study these compounds, looking at effects overnight matters a lot.”

Manual feeding of a bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) worker during acute exposure trials. Credit: James Crall

Additional experiments, in which temperature probes were placed inside outdoor hives, suggested pesticides have profound effects on bees’ ability to regulate temperatures inside the nest.

“When temperatures drop, bees lock their wings down and shiver their muscles to generate heat,” Crall said. “But what we found was that, in control colonies, even as the temperature fluctuated widely, they were able to keep the temperature in the colony steady to within a few degrees. But the exposed bees, they pretty dramatically lose the capacity to regulate temperature.”

In addition to disrupting bees’ ability to directly heat or cool the nest, the experiment also revealed that pesticide exposure impacted bees’ ability to build an insulating wax cap over the colony.

“Almost all of our control colonies built that cap,” Crall said. “And it seems to be totally wiped out in the pesticide-exposed colonies, so they lose this capacity to do this functional restructuring of the .”

Going forward, Crall said, there are some additional questions raised by the study that he hopes to address.

“This work—especially on thermoregulation—opens up a new set of questions, not just about what the direct effects of pesticides are, but how those pesticides impair the ability of colonies to cope with other stressors,” he said. “This work suggests that, in particularly extreme environments, we might expect the effects of pesticides to be worse, so it changes both how we go about practically testing agro-chemicals in general, but it points to specific questions about whether we might see stronger declines in certain environments.”

Taken together, Crall believes the findings point to the need for tighter regulation of neonicotinoids and other that may be impacting bees.

“I think we’re at a point where we should be very, very concerned about how the ways in which we’re changing the environment is undercutting and decimating insect populations that are important not only for the function of every ecosystem…but that are very important for food production,” he said. “Our food system is becoming more and more pollinator-dependent over time—today about a third of food crops are dependent on pollinators, and that’s only rising. Up until now, we’ve had this abundant, natural gift of pollinators doing all this work for us, and now we’re starting to realize that isn’t a given, so I think we should be very worried about that.”


Explore further:
Neonicotinoid pesticide affects foraging and social interaction in bumblebees

More information:
J.D. Crall el al., “Neonicotinoid exposure disrupts bumblebee nest behavior, social networks, and thermoregulation,” Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aat1598

“Pesticide affects social behavior of bees,” Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aav5273


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New research reveals that hummingbirds and bumble bees are being exposed to neonicotinoid and other pesticides through routes that are widespread and complex. The findings are published in Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

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Mars orbiter sends striking photos from icy crater – The Times of Israel

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Mars orbiter sends striking photos from icy crater – The Times of Israel

The European Space Agency has released stunning new photos of Mars’ northern Korolev crater.

The images are composites, created from five separate photos taken by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which has been flying over Earth’s neighboring planet since 2003.

The crater is 82 kilometers (51 miles) wide, filled by a sheet of ice that is 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) deep at its thickest point.


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Unlike other icy craters on the red planet, Korolev keeps its ice all year round, thanks to a layer of cold air trapped inside the crater, cooling its contents.

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Korolev crater, an 82-kilometer-across feature found in the northern lowlands of Mars. This plan mosaic comprises five different observational strips that have been combined to form a single image. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Korolev crater is named after Sergei Korolev, Soviet Russia’s chief rocket engineer during the space race between the USSR and the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. He worked on the Sputnik program that sent the first man-made satellite into orbit, as well as the Vostok program in which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961.

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‘Real Alchemy’: Chinese Scientists Discover a Way to Turn Copper Into ‘Gold’ – Sputnik International

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‘Real Alchemy’: Chinese Scientists Discover a Way to Turn Copper Into ‘Gold’ – Sputnik International
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Alchemists have been struggling for ages to create the legendary philosopher’s stone capable of, among other things, turning base metals into precious ones, and specifically – into gold. Modern day Chinese scientists seem to have finally come close to performing such a transformation.

A group of Chinese scientists from the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics has published research in the journal Science Advances, which describes how they managed to turn regular copper into a material “almost identical” to gold and silver. The metal, which the scientists obtained as a result of result of their experiment was capable of serving as a catalyst for a reaction producing alcohol from coal — something only precious metals such as gold are capable of doing.

Researchers bombarded a piece of copper with a stream of hot and electrically charged argon gas. The procedure charges its atoms, making their electrons more dense and more stable, making the resultant material closer to gold in terms of resistance to erosion, oxidisation and high temperatures.

The research paper points out that the new material based on cheap copper can replace expensive gold and silver in the production of electronic devices, which require significant amounts of these materials.

READ MORE: Chinese Scientists Developing Bee-Inspired Spacecraft Capable of Changing Shape

At the same time, the material will be of little use for counterfeiters, since its density remains the same as copper, thus making the material lighter than gold and a bad choice to make fake gold bars or coins.

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The Secret Fishing Habits Of Northwoods’ Wolves – NPR

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The Secret Fishing Habits Of Northwoods’ Wolves – NPR

New research at Voyageurs National Park is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than previously thought.

Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project

New research at Voyageurs National Park is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than previously thought.

Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project

Wolves, as it turns out, might not be the bloodthirsty, moose-slaughtering, northwoods-roaming carnivores you always thought they were.

New research on wolf packs at Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than scientists previously thought.

Researchers with the Voyageurs Wolf Project, a collaboration between the park and the University of Minnesota, have for the first time documented wolves hunting freshwater fish as a seasonal food source — and they have video to prove it.

A diet of meat and berries

Wolves still rely heavily on deer, but earlier studies on wolves in the park have shown that they also eat a large number of beaver — and even blueberries — to supplement their diet.

Wolf scat showing evidence of blueberries in the diet.

Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project

Wolf scat showing evidence of blueberries in the diet.

Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project

These new discoveries, which were recently published in the journal Mammalian Biology, were possible thanks to new technology.

Since 2015, researchers have been placing GPS collars on wolves from seven different packs in and around the park. They collect location data from the animals every 20 minutes, which allows them to zoom in on the animals’ predation habits at a finer scale than earlier versions of the collars had permitted: When wolves spend more than 20 minutes at any one site, they know they’re probably eating something.

That’s how they first suspected members of the Bowman Bay pack were eating fish. In April 2017, University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable hiked to a creek where one of the collared wolves had spent a lot of time. He was searching for evidence of a kill.

He looked up, and saw a collared wolf about 50 feet away. But the wolf didn’t see him.

“It was really crazy,” he said. “He came within about 8 to 10 meters of me and he had no idea I was there. I was hiding in the shrubs on the edge of this creek.”

For the next 15 minutes or so, Gable watched the wolf meander back and forth around the creek. Periodically it would run into the creek and splash around. Then it stopped, and looked like it was eating something, before returning to the creek.

Eventually the wolf left, and Gable came out of hiding to explore the area. He realized right away the wolf was hunting fish — spawning suckers — in the creek.

University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable collects the skull/jaw of a beaver that was killed by a wolf.

Courtesy of Tom Gable


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Courtesy of Tom Gable

University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable collects the skull/jaw of a beaver that was killed by a wolf.

Courtesy of Tom Gable

“And then as I explored the area even more, I found wolf tracks all over the mud on the creek, and I found fish scales and blood and guts all over the edges of the creek, and you could just see that wolves had been spending a lot of time there,” he said. “And there were wolf scats as well that were full of fish scales and fish remains.”

Gable and his colleagues quickly learned that little scene he witnessed wasn’t just a one-time meal. In the month after his hike to the creek, researchers found the two GPS-collared wolves in the Bowman Bay pack spent about half their time hunting fish there.

About a year later, Gable and his colleagues noticed the pack visiting the creek again, so they set up trail cameras, and caught footage of the wolves fishing at night.

“You can see the wolves abruptly head to the water several times after hearing a splash,” Gable said. “They learned what a fish splashing in the creek sounds like and they know that it means food.”

The video also captured wolves catching fish and not eating them right away. Instead, they stored them on the bank of the creek, and fished some more.

That behavior provides a glimpse into a wolf’s mental processing, Gable said. “It somehow knew that there were going to be more, so, it might as well go get fish while the fishing was good, and then come back later to the fish after he had gotten what he could.”

A first for freshwater fishing

Scientists have known for a long time that wolves in coastal habitats in British Columbia and Alaska eat spawning salmon. But this is the first time similar behavior with hunting freshwater fish has been detailed.

“Given the impressive adaptability of wolves to find food, it is not entirely surprising,” said project adviser Joseph Bump.

Wolves Are Back In Germany, But Not Always Welcome

But wolves are elusive, he said: “Especially in the densely forested areas of northern Minnesota, you have to either be in the right spot at the right time or have access to GPS-collar data.”

Those collars have helped shed new light into wolves’ secretive lives in the dense boreal forest of northern Minnesota. Researchers mapped 68,000 GPS locations the packs visited just this past summer.

A pack of wolves lounge on a frozen lake in Voyageurs National Park.

Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project

A pack of wolves lounge on a frozen lake in Voyageurs National Park.

Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project

Among their major findings, so far:

  • Wolves are omnivores. They eat a lot of blueberries in July and August. By the time the fruit ripens in northern Minnesota, deer fawns — wolves’ primary prey in June — are old enough to escape them.
  • Wolves eat beavers — a lot of them. Beaver can constitute up to 42 percent of a pack’s diet from April until October, researchers have found. Preliminary data show that, on average, one wolf in Voyageurs kills about six to eight beavers per year. But that varies. Individual wolves might not eat any beavers at all. But they found one wolf that had eaten 28 beavers in one year.
  • Wolves hunt beaver differently than they do other prey. Instead of chasing them, they lie in ambush, and strike when the beaver venture onto land.
  • Wolves are good swimmers. One collared wolf swam 12 times across sections of Rainy Lake over a two-day period, covering 2.6 miles.
What Gave Some Primates Bigger Brains? A Fruit-Filled Diet

All these findings help confirm what scientists have understood for a long time: Wolves are highly adaptable creatures, which is why they’ve been able to thrive in so many different habitats, from North America to Europe to Asia.

“Wolves are opportunistic. They can adapt pretty readily to new food sources,” explained Steve Windels, a wildlife biologist at Voyageurs National Park.

Still, he admitted it’s exciting to confirm behaviors scientists have suspected, especially in wolves in Minnesota that haven’t been studied as intensively as their counterparts in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere.

One of the remaining details Windels hopes to tease out is the complex relationship between wolves’ predation on beavers, deer and moose and the impact it has on their populations.

Voyageurs is unique in that it has one of the densest populations of beaver in the region. It also is one of the only places in Minnesota where the moose population is holding steady. In other parts of northeastern Minnesota, moose have declined sharply in the past decade for a host of reasons, including disease and other health-related causes, but in part because of wolf predation.

It’s still too early to make a direct tie between Voyageurs’ steady moose population and its abundance of beavers for wolves to feed on, Windels said. But “this is a great opportunity for us to really get at that question just because of the of the density of beavers that we have here that creates a unique laboratory where we can actually start to see how that dynamic plays out.”

In the meantime, the wolf research at Voyageurs has been getting a lot of attention. A recent Facebook post mapping the different wolf pack territories in the park has drawn over 500,000 views, Gable said.

“That’s really a satisfying part about doing all this is to share what we’re actually finding with people, and to see how excited people are about the work that we’re doing.”

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