Spiders could be key to saving our bees

A novel bio-pesticide created from spider venom and a plant protein has been found to be safe for honeybees, despite being highly toxic to a number of key insect pests.

Researchers from Newcastle University believe that this new, natural compound has huge potential as an alternative to the chemical neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to declines in bee populations. The EU voted last year to impose a 2-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, but the US still allows their use.

Hailing this new compound as environmentally benign and ‘bee-safe’, the bio-pesticide is a combination of a natural toxin from the venom of an Australian funnel web spider and snowdrop lectin. The researchers found that feeding even acute and chronic doses to honeybees – beyond the levels they would ever experience in nature – had only a very slight effect on the bees’ survival and no measurable effect at all on their learning and memory.

Honeybees perform sophisticated behaviours while foraging that require them to learn and remember floral traits associated with food. Disruption to this important function has profound implications for honeybee colony survival, because bees that cannot learn will not be able to find food and return to their hives.

By pollinating some key crop species, honeybees make a vital contribution to food security. The decline of these insects raises significant concerns about our ability to feed a growing population.

Unlike other types of pesticides that get absorbed through the exoskeleton, the spider/snowdrop combination is an oral pesticide that has to be ingested by the insects, explains research lead Erich Nakasu, a PhD student at Newcastle University. As a result, the larvae were also unaffected, as they were able to break it down in their gut.


Photo credit: Martin LaBar/Creative Commons

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