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Bees Are Adapting To Our Littering By Building Nests Out Of Plastic

Bees that usually make their homes out of leaves have capitulated to pollution and begun to incorporate man-made materials.

In the 1940s, humans began to get used to seeing plastic crop up everywhere, from homeware to food packaging. Now, in 2017, bees are starting to do the same. During a just-published study on insect flower visitation in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) in the United Arab Emirates, researchers saw that bees have started to use scavenged plastic scraps to build their nests.

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These particular bees are of the seldom-studied Megachile patellimana species, found in parts of the Middle East and Africa. To make their nests, these bees burrow into the sand beneath plants, usually bringing along some leaves, which they cut up to construct the walls of their nests. Hence the species’s common name: the leafcutter bee.

In this case, though, the bees mixed in some plastic with their leaves. “At the former site a female was carrying a freshly cut leaf piece and at the latter another was carrying a cut length of narrow, tough, green plastic,” researchers and authors Sarah Gess and Peter Roosenschoon write in the study. “The nest contained a group of identical lengths of plastic, clearly a substitute for leaves.”

The average length of these plastic strips was around 0.4 inches. “The cutting of the tough plastic would have been possible by using the large, robustly, and acutely toothed mandibles,” the authors write.

The Megachile patellimana isn’t the first leafcutter bee to be observed using plastic to make its nest, Gess and Roosenschoon note. In 2013, another leafcutter species was seen using chopped-up polyethylene-based plastic bags for nest-building, and yet another used polyurethane-based exterior building sealant, which, if nothing else, would make a very durable and weather-resistant home.

The bees were probably making use of available materials, which in itself isn’t so surprising–insects and animals are no strangers to adapting to human-created environmental changes. But this adaptability is a good sign: It shows that bees can improvise when their usual building materials are unavailable. And unless the kinds of plastic they pick up turns out to be toxic to the bees, there seems to be no disadvantage to their use of plastic over leaves–apart from the fact that “plastic-cutter” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “leafcutter.”

[Photos: Sarah Kathleen Gess and Peter Roosenchoon. Poster Photo: USGS Bee Survey]

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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