Close to 90% of the world's plants and more than 100 American crops rely on them for survival. By some estimates, if they died off, the human race would have four years left to live. But in recent years, entire populations of them in Europe and the United States have been on the brink of collapse.
They are honeybees, and since 2006 they've been mysteriously vanishing across Europe and the United States. Scientists now suspect it was the result of overexposure to a widely used type of pesticide called neonicotinoids, which, it's believed, causes the insects to lose their minds — literally — by damaging their learning and memory centers. Bees unintentionally dosed with the poison can no longer find their way back to the hive, and stop being able to locate pollen, preventing the plants that depend on them from reproducing.
However, despite being worth $14 billion a year to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no one has found a way to save the bees from being wiped out by pesticides. Until now.
Image Credit: SOS Bees
Image Credit: Myrmecos
A possible breakthrough: By combining spider venom and a special protein from a flower, scientists at Newcastle University created a biologically based pesticide that's harmless to bees.
The new insecticide, called Hv1/GNA, will allow bees to thrive while simultaneously taking out other pests, Geraldine Wright, a lead researcher at the university's School of Biology Honeybee Lab, wrote in the paper's abstract.
How it works: The plant protein in the new insecticide acts as a delivery system for the poisonous spider venom. When scientists embed the venom inside the protein and feed it to pests, it passes through their gut and ends up in their nervous system, killing them.
Why it matters: This is important not just because the world needs honeybees, but also because it highlights a major agricultural problem: an overwhelming dependence on pesticides. Six years after the first signs of bee problems surfaced, scientists from Harvard published a study linking the die-outs with the poisons we use to drive away insects and small animals.
Image Credit: Ingienous
Alternatives to our pesticide habit exist — from rotating crops to prevent pests from making a permanent home, applying targeted, plant-specific pesticides only where needed (as opposed to spraying one general pesticide on all crops) or simply planting more crops that are naturally resistant to pests — but these practices will require more labor and a concerted effort.
After all that work in what could be a game-changing discovery, here's to hoping farmers use the new pesticide with caution.