The intriguing story of the bee, the spider and the snowdrop (Day 51)

The intriguing story of the bee, the spider and the snowdrop (Day 51)

17th July 2014

The bee is nature's pollinator but has been ravaged by pesticides, which are thought to damage their navigation, learning, food collection, lifespan, resistance to disease and fertility.

The main finger of blame is being pointed at an insecticide called neonicotinoid. It's a systemic insecticide, meaning it can be absorbed into every cell in a plant, making all parts poisonous to pests. Concerns are also growing that neonicotinoids are affecting a much wider group of animals including birds, lizards, earthworms and coastal shellfish.

Some action is being taken, such as the European Union banning three neonicotinoid insecticides on crops attractive to bees. Unfortunately, this action is not widespread.

So, mankind faces another dilemma. We need pesticides to help us sustain food production for over seven billion people. But our farming methods are hurting the environment and killing the creatures that propagate life throughout all of nature.

We need another solution, therefore I was encouraged to read about a novel bio-pesticide created using spider venom and a plant protein, which has been found to be safe for honeybees - despite being highly toxic to a number of key insect pests.

An unwitting ally of the humble bee - the funnel web spider?

The research, led by academics from Newcastle University and Durham University in the UK, has tested the insect-specific Hv1a/GNA fusion protein bio-pesticide – a combination of a natural toxin from the venom of an Australian funnel web spider and snowdrop lectin.

The research involved feeding acute and chronic doses of the bio-pesticide to honeybees - beyond the levels they would ever experience in nature. The research team found it only slightly effected the bees’ survival and had no measurable effect on their learning and memory.

There is further good news with previous studies having already shown that the bio-pesticide is safe for higher animals.

Although, not a single solution, the researchers believe the new bio-pesticide has real potential and offers a safer alternative to some of those currently on the market.

It's also a good example of why governments and agencies, like the UK's Technology Strategy Board in this case, need to continue to support research programmes around the world if we are to provide solutions to the grand challenges.