Pollen-inspired technology developed by Cornell University provides beekeepers, consumers and farmers with an antidote to deadly pesticides.
These substances kill wild bees and cause beekeepers to lose about a third of their hives every year.
An early version of the technology, which detoxified bees from a widely used group of insecticides called organophosphates, is described in a new study, "Pollen-Inspired Enzyme Microparticles to Reduce Organophosphate Toxicity in Managed Pollinators," published in Nature Food.
Beemmunity, factory of "pollen" that cures
The method of administering the antidote has now been adapted to effectively protect bees from all insecticides and has inspired a new society, Bee community, based in the state of New York.
Studies show that the wax and pollen in 98% of hives in the US are contaminated with an average of six pesticides, which also reduce a bee's immunity to devastating varroa mites and pathogens.
An enormous damage, also because pollinators provide vital services by helping to fertilize the crops that lead to the production of a third of the food we consume.
Pollen antidote: research
"We have a solution whereby beekeepers can feed their bees with our microparticle products in pollen balls or in a sugar syrup, to detoxify the hive of pesticides," he says. James Webb, CEO of Beemmunity.
The first author of the study, Jing Chen, is a postdoctoral researcher in the senior author's laboratory Minglin Ma, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
The paper focuses on organophosphate-based insecticides, about a third of those on the market. A recent worldwide meta-analysis of studies on pesticide residues in hives found that, according to current usage patterns, of the five insecticides that are very risky to bees, two were organophosphates.
Researchers have developed a uniform, pollen-sized microparticle filled with enzymes that kill organophosphate insecticides before they are absorbed and harm the bee.
The microparticles can be mixed with pollen balls or sugared water and, once ingested, the enzymes (with protection from the bee's stomach acids) travel to the intestines. There, enzymes act to break down organophosphates.
The test results
After a series of in vitro experiments, the researchers tested the system on live bees in the laboratory. They fed bees with contaminated pollen. They then supplied them with the microparticles with the enzyme. A control group was fed only the toxic pollen.
Bees fed on the microparticles had a very good survival rate of 100% after exposure to the insecticide. The unprotected bees died within a few days.
Beemmunity has evolved the concept, also avoiding enzymes. The micro particles have been filled with a special absorbent oil that "attracts" and incorporates the insecticides into this "sponge pollen". Eventually, the bees simply defecate the toxin.
Ready in 2022
The company is conducting tests on 240 hives in New Jersey and plans to launch its products starting in February 2022.
"This is a scalable, low-cost solution. We hope it is a first step in addressing the toxicity problem of insecticides and contributing to the protection of pollinators," says Ma.