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Save the bees

Chemistry team develops 'intelligent' material to test for bee-harming pesticides

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s leadership and expertise in a more sustainable Newfoundland and Labrador, with a particular focus on economic and social sustainability.

By Kelly Foss

More than a decade after beekeepers first raised the alarm about a dangerously low global bee population, much progress has been made in understanding the mystery of colony collapse.

A report from the European Food Safety Authority, published on Feb. 28, points squarely at neonicotinoids, some of the world’s most widely used insecticides, as a major cause — and is expected to lead to a total ban on their use when European Union nations vote on the issue next month.

No federal regulations

In Canada, the federal government is monitoring the situation, and conducting risk assessments in collaboration with the United States. However, no federal regulations currently exist regarding their use, despite many attempts at establishing environmental limits.

Jeremy Gauthier, a master’s student in chemistry at Memorial, says one of the primary factors holding up more regulation in Canada is that the scientific community does not have the means to sample neonicotinoid pesticides effectively.

Jeremy Gauthier
Jeremy Gauthier has created an intelligent material that can test for neonicotinoids, a pesticide that harms bees.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The concentrations we have in the environment are too low to be detected by the methods currently available, but despite low concentrations, they may still be high enough to affect bees,” he said.

Mr. Gauthier has been working with his supervisor, Dr. Christina Bottaro, to develop intelligent materials that can selectively test for the pesticides in honey and aqueous samples, including river and lake water. These thin films, made from molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs), have molecule-sized cavities that can pick up compounds of interest.

Faster, cheaper, greener

What they’ve come up with is giving better results than the “rudimentary” sample analysis currently being done worldwide.

Mr. Gauthier has tested it against three other accepted methods and has found his material has the enhanced sensitivity needed to effectively map the pesticide’s distribution in the environment.

Their material is also more sustainable in that it requires less of a sample for testing and uses less solvent during the analysis, rendering it faster, cheaper, and greener, which they hope will encourage more sampling.

“All of the other procedures being used in the literature have been used for years on other pesticides, and they don’t necessarily work as well for neonicotinoids,” he said.

“While the pesticides do show up, you can only detect them where there are higher agricultural concentrations. But our test can map them as they are being diluted along a river, for example.”

Wide range of harm

Neonicotinoids were once considered an environmentally friendly pesticide.

“Everywhere water went . . . about 95 per cent of the pesticides went with it.” — Jeremy Gauthier

They are applied directly to crop seeds, with the idea that as the seed and seed-coating deteriorates, the plant would absorb the pesticide. This supposedly would be highly effective against the insects which feed on the plants, eliminating the need for less-targeted pesticide sprays.

“Unfortunately, researchers in Europe noticed only a small percentage of pesticide actually went into the plant,” said Mr. Gauthier.

“The rest became distributed through the environment. Because neonicotinoids were intended to go through the plant’s root system, they were designed to be highly soluble. So, everywhere water went, in terms of agricultural run-off, about 95 per cent of the pesticides went with it.”

In addition to contaminating the soil and water, neonicotinoids, which are insecticidal nerve agents, were also being ingested directly by bees as they fed on the pollen of treated plants. This caused a wide range of harm, including memory damage and a reduction in queen numbers.

Local impact

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the bee population is still very hardy.

Dr. Bottaro believes this is partly because the province doesn’t have a large agricultural sector, and because our honey bees feed primarily on wildflowers.

“If seed crops come pre-treated with this pesticide, farmers might not even know they are using it.” — Dr. Christina Bottaro

“Of course, there’s an effort to increase agricultural intensity in the province,” she said.

“If agriculture expands, depending on farming practices, there may be an impact on our bees. A lot of the farming operations are trying to use more sustainable approaches, use fewer chemical insecticides and herbicides, and be more organic. But if seed crops come pre-treated with this pesticide, farmers might not even know they are using it.”

Dr. Bottaro says their interest is not to influence farming practices, but to provide better tools to improve understanding of the influence of human activities on the environment.

Mr. Gauthier and Dr. Bottaro are currently working to patent the MIP formulation and develop it for commercialization, with the hope that the information provided by the wider use of their method can help establish new regulatory limits for neonicotinoids in Canada and improve routine testing worldwide.

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