New Pollen-Sized Antidote Protects Bees from Insecticides
Cornell University’s technology, the size of a pollen grain, successfully detoxified bees from organophosphates and is being adapted to protect bees from other pesticides.
The discovery launched Beemmunity, a new company whose 27-year-old CEO was a graduate student and a co-author of a study published May 20 in the journal Nature Food.
“We have a solution whereby beekeepers can feed their bees our microparticle products in pollen patties or in a sugar syrup, and it allows them to detoxify the hive of any pesticides that they might find,” said James Webb, Beemmunity CEO.
Webb, joined by Cornell researchers Jing Chen, Minglin Ma, and Scott McArt, developed a pollen-sized microparticle filled with enzymes that detoxified organophosphates before they were absorbed and harmed the bees.
Ingeniously, the researchers got the bees to eat enzyme-filled microparticles by mixing them with pollen patties or sugar water. After they’re consumed, the particles pass through a bee’s acidic stomach to the midgut, where digestion occurs, and toxins and nutrients are absorbed. There, the enzymes broke down and detoxified the organophosphates.
The technology proved highly successful in a lab experiment. All the bees fed lethal doses of pollen contaminated with malathion and enzyme-filled microparticles lived. All the bees fed toxic pollen but no microparticles died within days.
The study was funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.
Now, Beemmunity is developing particles with a shell made with insect proteins and filled with a special absorptive oil that acts like a tiny sponge. Because many insecticides, including neonicotinoids, target insect proteins, the microparticle shell draws in the insecticide and holds it. The bees eliminate the sequestered toxins in their waste.
While researchers have found that bees might need multiple doses, Webb speculated the technology would allow beekeepers to detoxify entire hives rather than individual bees.
This summer, Beemmunity is conducting colony-scale trials on 240 hives in New Jersey. The company plans to publicly launch its products starting in February. The new products will include microparticle sponges that can be added to pollen patties or sugar water.