science

A stinging lawsuit is raised in Canada

Canadian beekeepers sue Bayer and Syngenta over neonicotinoid pesticides
Class action lawsuit seeks $400 million in damages

Canadian beekeepers are suing the makers of popular crop pesticides for more than $400 million in damages, alleging that their use is causing the deaths of bee colonies.

The proposed class action lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the Ontario Superior Court on behalf of all Canadian beekeepers by Sun Parlor Honey Ltd. and Munro Honey, two of Ontario’s largest honey producers, the Ontario Beekeepers Association announced Wednesday.

“The goal is to stop the use of the neonicotinoids to stop the harm to the bees and the beekeepers,” said Paula Lombardi, a lawyer with London, Ont.-based law firm Siskinds LLP, which is handling the case.

As of Thursday morning, more than 30 beekeepers had signed on to participate in the class action.

Read the statement of claim

The lawsuit alleges that Bayer Cropscience Inc. and Syngenta Canada Inc. and their parent companies were negligent in their design, manufacture, sale and distribution of neonicotinoid pesticides, specifically those containing imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiomethoxam.

The pesticides, which are a neurotoxin to insects, are widely coated on corn, soybean and canola seeds in Canada to protect the plants from pests such as aphids. Studies have shown that bees exposed to the pesticides have smaller colonies, fail to return to their hives, and may have trouble navigating. The pesticides were also found in 70 per cent of dead bees tested by Health Canada in 2013.

Bee researchers raise more warning flags about neonicotinoid pesticides

The European Commission restricted the use of the pesticides for two years and Ontario has indicated it will move toward regulating them, due to concerns over bee health.

Bayer maintains that the risk to bees from the pesticide is low, and it has recommended ways that farmers can minimize bees’ exposure to the pesticide.

Both Bayer and Syngenta told CBC News they wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit because they haven’t yet been served with it.

The lawsuit is seeking more than $400 million in damages, alleging that as a result of neonicotinoid use:

  • The beekeepers’ colonies and breeding stock were damaged or died.
  • Their beeswax, honeycombs and hives were contaminated.
  • Their honey production decreased.

They lost profits and incurred unrecoverable costs, such as increased labour and supply costs. Beekeepers or companies involved in beekeeping services such as honey production, queen bee rearing and pollination who are affected and want to join the lawsuit are asked to contact Lombardi.

The Ontario Beekeepers Association is not directly involved in the lawsuit, but along with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, helped connect beekeepers with the law firm. The association also helped with the research for the lawsuit.

Bees Can Sense the Electric Fields of Flowers

This post by Ed Yong originally appeared in National Geographic

 

A bumblebee visits a flower, drawn in by the bright colours, the patterns on the petals, and the aromatic promise of sweet nectar. But there’s more to pollination than sight and smell. There is also electricity in the air.

Dominic Clarke and Heather Whitney from the University of Bristol have shown that bumblebees can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower. They can even learn to distinguish between fields produced by different floral shapes, or use them to work out whether a flower has been recently visited by other bees. Flowers aren’t just visual spectacles and smelly beacons. They’re also electric billboards.

“This is a big finding,” says Daniel Robert, who led the study. “Nobody had postulated the idea that bees could be sensitive to the electric field of a flower.”

Scientists have, however, known about the electric side of pollination since the 1960s, although it is rarely discussed. As bees fly through the air, they bump into charged particles from dust to small molecules. The friction of these microscopic collisions strips electrons from the bee’s surface, and they typically end up with a positive charge.

Flowers, on the other hand, tend to have a negative charge, at least on clear days. The flowers themselves are electrically earthed, but the air around them carries a voltage of around 100 volts for every metre above the ground. The positive charge that accumulates around the flower induces a negative charge in its petals.

When the positively charged bee arrives at the negatively charged flower, sparks don’t fly but pollen does. “We found some videos showing that pollen literally jumps from the flower to the bee, as the bee approaches… even before it has landed,” says Robert. The bee may fly over to the flower but at close quarters, the flower also flies over to the bee.

This is old news. As far back as the 1970s, botanists suggested that electric forces enhance the attraction between pollen and pollinators. Some even showed that if you sprinkle pollen over an immobilised bee, some of the falling grains will veer off course and stick to the insect.

But Robert is no botanist. He’s a sensory biologist. He studies how animals perceive the world around them. When he came across the electric world of bees and flowers, the first question that sprang to mind was: “Does the bee know anything about this process?” Amazingly, no one had asked the question, much less answered it. “We read all of the papers,” says Robert. “We even had one translated from Russian, but no one had made that intellectual leap.”

To answer the question, Robert teamed up with Clarke (a physicist) and Whitney (a botanist), and created e-flowers—artificial purple-topped blooms with designer electric fields. When bumblebees could choose between charged flowers that carried a sugary liquid, or charge-less flowers that yielded a bitter one, they soon learned to visit the charged ones with 81 percent accuracy. If none of the flowers were charged, the bees lost the ability to pinpoint the sugary rewards.

But the bees can do more than just tell if an electric field is there or not. They can also discriminate between fields of different shapes, which in turn depend on the shape of a flower’s petals and how easily they conduct electricity. Clarke and Whitney visualised these patterns by spraying flowers with positively charged and brightly coloured particles. You can see the results below. Each flower has been sprayed on its right half, and the rectangular boxes show the colours of the particles.

 

Coloured particles reveal the electric fields of flowers. From Clarke et al, 2013

The bees can sense these patterns. They can learn to tell the difference between an e-flower with an evenly spread voltage and one with a field like a bullseye with 70 percent accuracy.

Bees can also use this electric information to bolster what their other senses are telling them. The team trained bees to discriminate between two e-flowers that came in very slightly different shades of green. They managed it, but it took them 35 visits to reach an accuracy of 80 percent. If the team added differing electric fields to the flowers, the bees hit the same benchmark within just 24 visits.

How does the bee actually register electric fields? No one knows, but Robert suspects that the fields produce small forces that move some of the bee’s body parts, perhaps the hairs on its body. In the same way that a rubbed balloon makes you hair stand on end, perhaps a charged flower provides a bee with detectable tugs and shoves.

The bees, in turn, change the charge of whatever flower they land upon. Robert’s team showed that the electrical potential in the stem of a petunia goes up by around 25 millivolts when a bee lands upon it. This change starts just before the bee lands, which shows that it’s nothing to do with the insect physically disturbing the flower. And it lasts for just under two minutes, which is longer than the bee typically spends on its visit.

This changing field can tell a bee whether a flower has been recently visited, and might be short of nectar. It’s like a sign that says “Closed for business. Be right back.” It’s also a much more dynamic signal than more familiar ones like colour, patterns or smells. All of these are fairly static. Flowers can change them, but it takes minutes or hours to do so. Electric fields, however, change instantaneously whenever a bees lands. They not only provide useful information, but they do it immediately.

Robert thinks that these signals could either be honest or dishonest, depending on the flower. Those that carpet a field and require multiple visits from pollinators will evolve to be truthful, because they cannot afford to deceive their pollinators.  Bees are good learners and if they repeatedly visit an empty flower, they will quickly avoid an entire patch. Worse still, they’ll communicate with their hive-mates, and the entire colony will seek fresh pastures. “If the flower can signal that it is momentarily empty, then the bee will benefit and the flower will communicate honestly its mitigated attraction,” says Robert.

But some flowers, like tulips or poppies, only need one or two visits to pollinate themselves.  “These could afford to lie,” says Gilbert. He expects that they will do everything possible to keep their electric charge constant, even if a bee lands upon them. They should always have their signs flipped to “Open”. Gilbert’s students will be testing this idea in the summer.

Many animals can sense electric fields, including sharks and rays, electric fishat least one species of dolphin, and the platypus. But this is the first time that anyone has discovered this sense in an insect. And in the humble bumblebee, no less! Bees and flowers have been studied intensely for decades, maybe centuries, and it turns out that they’ve been exchanging secret messages all this time.

Now, Robert’s team is going to take their experiments from the lab into the field, to see just how electrically sensitive wild bees can be, and how their senses change according to the weather. “We are probably only seeing the tip of the electrical iceberg here,” he says.

Reference: Clarke, Whitney, Sutton & Robert. Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees. Science http:/dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1230883

Honey bees’ genetic code unlocked

This article originally appeared on BBC News 

Researchers say they have unlocked the genetic secrets of honey bees’ high sensitivity to environmental change.

Scientists from the UK and Australia think their findings could help show links between nutrition, environment and the insects’ development.Honey Bee

It could, they suggest, offer an insight into problems like Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious cause of mass bee deaths globally.

The findings appear in Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“Honey bees live in complex societies comprising tens of thousands of individuals,” explained study co-author Paul Hurd from Queen Mary, University of London.

“Most of these are female ‘worker’ honeybees that are unable to reproduce and instead devote their short lives to finding food in flowers… and other tasks such as nursing larvae inside the hive.”

But the hive has a queen as well – the much longer-lived, reproductive head of the hive,

“When the queen bee lays her eggs, worker bees can determine whether the resulting larvae are to become an adult worker bee or an adult queen bee,” Dr Hurd said.

“The type of food the larvae is fed dictates the developmental outcome – larvae destined to become workers are fed a pollen and nectar diet, and those destined to become queens are fed royal jelly.

“This difference in feeding is maintained over the entire lifetime of the worker or queen bee.”

The change is suggested to be the result of a “histone code” – a process that sees genetic changes made to proteins called histones within cells’ nuclei. Rather than “genetic” changes that are locked into DNA, these are known as “epigenetic” changes.

The report marks the first time such effects had been recorded in honey bees.

“The development of different bees from the same DNA in the larvae is one of the clearest examples of epigenetics in action – mechanisms that go beyond the basic DNA sequence,” said co-author Mark Dickman from the University of Sheffield.

“From our knowledge of how the histone code works with in other organisms, we think the marks on the histone proteins might act as one of the switches that control how the larvae develop.”