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Brain function impairment clue to bee decline mystery?

Researchers have been awarded £1.8 million to examine whether the use of pesticides is hampering the cognitive functions of bees – and possibly hastening their demise.

The multidisciplinary project, led by Dr Chris Connolly and Dr Jenni Harvey from the University of Dundee’s Centre for Neuroscience, will examine whether chronic exposure to a combination of chemicals could be harming bumblebees and honeybees, whose decline in number has attracted worldwide coverage over the past few years.

The Dundee team will investigate the ‘synergistic impact of sublethal exposure to industrial chemicals on the learning capacity and performance of bees’ brains’. Although pesticides are screened to be non-lethal to bees before they are passed for use, the Dundee team will examine whether a combination of chemicals used in agriculture causes unexpected damage to bees.

‘Many insecticides work by interfering with information flow in the brains of insects – either increasing or decreasing their brain activity,’ Dr Connolly said.

‘We will be looking at whether chronic exposure to chemicals used to control mites, combined with levels of agricultural pesticides that are not themselves lethal, may act together to magnify their affects on bee brain function…Our hypothesis is that these chemicals may have a synergistic effect on the brain function of bees.’

In collaboration with Dr Geraldine Wright (University of Newcastle) and Dr Nigel Raine (Royal Holloway, London) they will investigate the potential damaging effects of such agents on bee performance in learning visual and olfactory skills, foraging, navigation and communication.

Declining numbers of bees are particularly concerning as it is believed up to a third of human nutrition is dependent on bee pollination, and the total loss of insect pollinators could cost up to £440 million per year in the UK alone.

The project is one of nine sharing in a £10 million funding package provided by the Insect Pollinators Initiative, announced today as part of National Insect Week.

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Pharmacology/ Therapeutics


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