Car Exhaust Is Confusing Honeybees to Death

If bees are all whacked-out on diesel vapors, it obviously won’t be good for farmers.

Stephen Dalton/ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Science has linked breathing car exhaust to all manner of afflictions, from brain damage to heart attacks to chronic asthma in children. But the damaging effects of auto fumes stretch beyond the human realm and into the wild, with honeybees in particular getting so addled by the stuff they no longer can find life-sustaining flowers.

That’s according to researchers at the UK’s University of Southampton who are investigating how diesel exhaust interacts with floral aromas. Bees rely on these zesty odors to locate blossoms, which they mine for nectar and pollen to use as a food source back at the hive. In an ideal environment of green fields and pristine air, bees have little problem tracing the scents to their blooming wellsprings. But in a smoggy urban zone or along highways, car exhaust violently zaps the aromas, changing their chemical composition or even eliminating them completely.

Southampton ecologist Tracey Newman and neuroscientist Guy Poppy (really) arrived at this conclusion after running tests with a yellow-flowered member of the cabbage family, rapeseed. They mixed chemicals found in the scent of the flower with those in diesel exhaust and witnessed a startling transformation: The majority of the floral components either shrunk in volume or disappeared in the span of a minute. They then blew this dirty air into the vicinity of some honeybees, and watched as the insects showed no sign of recognition that it had originally contained flower aromas.

The researchers speculate that the exhaust’s nitrogen compounds, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, are primarily responsible for the annihilation of the flower smells. While they don’t go far into exploring possible connections between burning fossil fuels and the plague of colony collapses wiping out honeybee populations in North America and Europe, they do note that having confused, starving bees does not bode well for humanity.

Here’s Newman explaining why that is:

NOx gases represent some of the most reactive gases produced from diesel combustion and other fossil fuels, but the emissions limits for nitrogen dioxide are regularly exceeded, especially in urban areas…. This could have serious detrimental effects on the number of honeybee colonies and pollination activity.

Poppy adds more:

Honeybee pollination can significantly increase the yield of crops and they are vital to the world’s economy—£430 million a year to the UK alone. However to forage effectively they need to be able to learn and recognize the plants. The results indicate that NOx gases—particularly nitrogen dioxide—may be capable of disrupting the odour recognition process that honeybees rely on for locating floral food resources. Honeybees use the whole range of chemicals found in a floral blend to discriminate between different blends, and the results suggest that some chemicals in a blend may be more important than others.

Bees are thought to aid in agricultural pollination to the tune of billions of dollars each year—$217 billion worldwide, according to an estimate for 2005. If they’re all whacked-out on diesel vapors, it obviously won’t be good for farmers or, farther down the road, even “global-food security,” warn the researchers.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate