To humans, funnel-web spiders are some of the most dangerous creatures on the planet, capable of killing you in 15 minutes. To honeybees, they could be the difference between continuing collapse and species survival.
Bees have dying in huge numbers, a phenomenon that still isn’t fully explained but that many people blame on a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics). So instead, researchers have come up an alternative “biopesticide” made from a mixture of spider venom and snowdrop lectin. They say it can still kill the real pests that reduce yields–but save the bees.
Up to 90% of the world’s plants rely on bees for pollination. So, the fate of these insects isn’t some romantic concern. Bees support hundreds of crops, and are effectively worth billions to farmers in the environmental services they provide.
It’s thought that neonics affect bees’ nerve systems, hindering their ability to learn and remember, and thus their ability to look for pollen, and find their way back to the hive. In tests, the new biopesticide seemed to have little effect on memory. Scientists gave bees high doses of the spider venom-lectin mix, and their movements were normal.
The study was led by scientists at the University of Newcastle in the UK. “If we destroy the biodiversity of pollinators then it will be irrelevant how effective our pesticides are because we won’t have any crops to protect,” says Geraldine Wright, one of the researchers, in a press release. “There is now substantial evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides to poor performance and survival in bees and what we need now is a clear directive from government to develop and introduce bee-safe alternatives.”
Neonics, which are chemically similar to nicotine, are currently banned in Europe, but still used in the United States. A host of studies have linked the chemicals with harm to bees, though industry groups instead blame irresponsible farmers and a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor for the bees’ problems.
In an email, Martin Edwards, another of the researchers, says it could be five to eight years before the new pesticide reaches the field. For one, they need to develop a production system using synthetic genes derived from the lectin and spider venom. They’d also need to make sure the pesticide isn’t dangerous for humans.
If neonics really are the cause colony collapse, alternatives can’t come soon enough.