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Spider venom, protein pesticide could stave off 'beemageddon'

Published time: June 07, 2014 01:17
Reuters / Heinz-Peter Bader

Reuters / Heinz-Peter Bader

Researchers in the United Kingdom hope that a new pesticide they have developed using spider venom and plant protein will help curb the demise of the honeybee population, thereby staving off catastrophe for global agriculture and food production.

Pesticides are widely blamed for the demise of bee colonies, which pollinate no less than a third of the food grown in the United States but have seen their population take an alarming fall over the past decade. Scientists have yet to find a single cause for the sudden fall, but a growing body of research has pointed the blame at poor nutrition and a class of agricultural pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics.

A new study conducted by academics at Newcastle University in England, though, has announced that by combining venom from the deadly Australian funnel web spider with lectin protein from the snowdrop plant they could have a new pesticide that does not cause bees to become confused and lose their way when traveling to the hive, as happens now.

They have developed a new biopesticide known Hv1a/GNA, which will allow bees to continue foraging for food without the difficulty so many undergo when they are hit with pesticides, many of which originate with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

There is now substantial evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides to poor performance and survival in bees,” Angharad Gatehouse of Newcastle University's biology department said in a press statement. “Our findings suggest that [the pesticide] is unlikely to cause any detrimental effects on honeybees. Previous studies have already shown it is safe for higher animals, which means it has real potential as a pesticide and offers us a safe alternative to some of those currently on the market.

Again, the widespread colony collapse has been attributed to a variety of factors however a study released earlier this month tied the “greatly misdiagnosed colony collapse disorder” to colonies that have 10 times more pesticides than a bee would find in the natural world, according to the New York Times.

The phenomenon became even more confounding when the drastic losses slowed over this past winter to 23.2 percent nationwide compared to 30.5 percent the winter before.

It's better than some of the years we've suffered,” Dennis vanEngelsdorn, a director of the Department of Agriculture and the Bee Informed Partnership, told Times, adding that 23.2 percent “is not a good number...We've gone from horrible to bad.”

The Newcastle team hopes to continue that trend by improving the chances that the biopesticide they have developed will only “slightly” affect bee colonies, as it did with their sample size. The venom/protein combination had no measurable impact on the bees' learning or memory, which the insect relies on when it is trying to memorize the route to and from the hive.

There isn't going to be one silver bullet,” Gatehouse said. “What we need it an integrated pest management strategy, and insect-specific pesticides will be just one part of that.”

Some of the optimism centered on the bees' already proven ability to break the biopesticide down within their own bodies. Dr. Geraldine Wright told the Daily Mail that even larvae were unaffected by the biopesticide, creating the possibility that the spider venom can not surpass the bees' calcium channel.

About 90 per cent of the world's plants are directly reliant on pollinators to survive,” she said. “If we destroy the biodiversity of pollinators then it will be irrelevant how effective our pesticides are because we will not have any crops to protect.”