It's not just human smokers or vapers than can become addicted to nicotine. New research has found that bees may be getting hooked on nectar laced with widely used nicotine-related chemicals in pesticides.
In addition to being hooked on the contaminated nectar the researchers also found that exposure to so-called neonicotinoids affects reproduction and colony growth in some bee species. The findings could help explain the rapid collapse of bee populations that have been observed over the last decade.
In Europe, restrictions have been placed on three such pesticides due to concerns for bees, but debate continues about the impact of low doses on these and other insects.
Companies including Bayer and Syngenta, makers and supporters of neonicotinoids, say the benefits outweigh the risks because they destroy pests and boost crop yields.
Researchers, however, fear they contribute to a decline in bees, which are crucial for crop pollination. Bee populations are slow to recover from dramatic die-offs and anything that encourages such events can have long last impacts beyond what can be observed in a lab or field study.
To learn more about the chemicals, Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University and colleagues offered bees a choice of drinking pure sugar water or a sugar water containing very low doses of neonicotinoids.
The researchers were shocked to find that honeybees and bumblebees drank far more from pesticide-containing solutions, implying that bees foraging in the wild would do likewise.
"There's a conundrum that they are attracted to the stuff that actually is having a negative impact on their motor function and their ability to collect food and forage," she told reporters.
The cause of the addictive behavior seems lie in the similarity of the chemicals to nicotine, which is actually produced by tobacco plants to prevent attacks by insects. In large amounts it is highly toxic.
"As soon as it gets into their blood they are getting a little buzz, as it were, and they are responding to that," Wright said.
Evidence against the chemicals is growing
Backing up the researcher's findings is a Separate study conducted by a team of Swedish researchers. The study found that oilseed rape sown from seeds coated in neonicotinoids reduced wild bee density, bumblebee colony growth and solitary bee nesting.
"At this point in time it is no longer credible to argue that agricultural use of neonicotinoids does not harm wild bees," said David Goulson, a biologist at the University of Sussex, who was not involved in either of the research efforts.
It seems to be yet another case, similar to Monsanto's stance on Roundup, where big commercial chemical companies are putting profits ahead of health. Perhaps its time we eliminate these chemicals from our own food supply.