Things Are About to Get Nerdy, or, I Was Right.

Every once in a while I read something that really gets me excited. There can be multiple reasons for this: maybe it’s really good journalism, or maybe it’s just an interesting and unusual story. Maybe it’s amazing science.

I recently read a Grist article: “Leaked document shows EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags.” I got really, really excited. It was the most exciting thing I had read in at least a week. And let me tell you, that was no small feat, considering the excellent piece of Nat Herz’s that I was asked to edit.

The article was about how, despite the fact that their own scientists believed that the pesticide clothianidin is toxic to honeybees, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushed through approval of the pesticide, and it now being used on millions of acres of staple crops like corn throughout the U.S.

As the title suggests, someone leaked a document showing the EPA scientists’ concerns over the pesticide – and the shoddy science that had been used to justify its safety. Thanks, Grist; that is good journalism. The EPA definitely hasn’t been the watchdog that it ought to be in the last, well, long time. You should read the piece just for the muckraking.

But besides the good journalism and interesting story, I got excited about something else. The whole scientific premise of why clothianidin is bad for bees is that it is expressed in plant pollen. The bees then eat the pollen, and, well, probably die. End of story.

Why is this cool?

A long time ago – or it seems that way to me – I had an idea. I was out in Colorado the summer before my junior year of college, working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and trying to brainstorm ideas for me senior thesis, which I’d be working on the next summer. After wandering around in the mountains a fair bit, I formulated a hypothesis and presented it to my advisor.

The Rockies are littered with old abandoned mines: silver mines, nickel mines, gold mines, molybdenum mines, copper mines, you name it. The tailing piles at some of these sites are filled with metal-rich soil, on which plants eke out a tough existence. My question was, what if the plants take up the metals into their tissue? And what if those metals are expressed in nectar and pollen? And what if bees forage on that nectar and pollen? What then? Do they have higher body metal loads? Do they die? Do they evolve tolerance?

My first vision was of running around catching bees and testing them for body metal loads. This was immediately rejected as impractical. First of all, bees have a very wide foraging range, so trapping one that happened to be flying through a mine site wouldn’t mean that it hadn’t just eaten a nice pollen snack from a pristine flower on the other side of the ridge. Secondly, bumblebees – the bees I was most interested in – are generalist foragers. So basically, you’d have to catch a lot of bees before you could be sure you had some who were actually foraging on the plants you cared about. And given the expensive nature of metals testing, that wasn’t much of an option.

I went on to do some really fun and interesting research looking at this issue from lots of different angles, but testing the metal loads in pollen and bee bodies didn’t happen. There were too many difficulties, not enough money, and after all I was only writing a thesis, not a PhD dissertation.

But. I’ve still wondered. What if those bees are carrying around a bunch of metals?

Now we’re getting back to the Grist article. The whole neonicotinoid family of pesticides works by being expressed in pollen and nectar, and then kills pests when they eat that pollen. The problem is that they also kill non-target pollinators, like bees. And we can’t afford that.

But do you see why I’m excited? Something bad is expressed in pollen! And the bees eat it! And then it’s in the bees!

Granted, metals are not pesticides, and pesticides, and their structure and expression sometimes approximate things like hormones – that’s why they are so deadly.

But there is hope for my hypothesized mechanism.

Maybe someone will investigate it.

Or give me a bunch of money to investigate it. Simultaneously with the several other jobs I am doing.

That would be cool.

If this has put you in a science-y mood, here’s some other cool stuff you could read.

– A research trip to the Antarctic via Nature magazine

– An entertaining piece on musk oxen from NYT

– Or, just read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s a good book. It makes me want to do fieldwork again.

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