Fertilizer confuses bumblebees, making them less likely to land on flowers, study shows

Bumblebees are less likely to pollinate flowers that have been sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides due to changes in the electric field around plants, a new study suggests.

Flowers use a variety of cues to attract pollinators, including color, sun, magnetic fields, scent, shape, texture, humidity and – recently discovered – electrostatic fields.

Positively charged bumblebees can detect and be attracted to negative charges in flowers.

However, synthetic chemical sprays alter these floral electrical signals, disrupting bees’ senses, according to research published in PNAS Nexus.

While tests found that the fertilizer did not alter the bees’ ability to recognize flowers by sight and smell, the researchers found that when they electrically manipulated the flowers to mimic the electrical changes caused by fertilizers and pesticides in the field, the bees’ senses were affected.

They found that the chemical spray changed the electric field around the flowers for up to 25 minutes after application — much longer than natural fluctuations, such as those caused by wind.

They observed that this change was consistent with a 20-minute change in the feeding habits of bees, and bees were less likely to land on electrically manipulated flowers than unmanipulated control flowers.

Study co-author Sam England, a PhD student in biological sciences at the University of Bristol, said the study provided the “first known” example of noise produced by human activity “interfering” with the electrical induction of dryland animals.

“It’s much like the noise of a motorboat that hinders the ability of fish to spot predators, or the artificial light that confuses moths at night; fertilizer is a source of noise for bees trying to detect electronic signals from flowers,” the co-authors added.

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“This broadens our understanding of the many aspects of human activity that negatively impacts the natural world, which may seem frustrating, but it promises to allow for the introduction or invention of solutions to prevent the adverse effects these chemicals can have on animals.”

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The researchers then simulated a rainfall event to see if this would reduce the effects of chemical sprays on the flowers. However, they again observed long-term changes in the electric field of the flowers by chemical sprays.

“Impact beyond pollination”

Therefore, the long-term impact of these changes remains uncertain.

“It is conceivable that the adverse effects of spray application persist for some time,” the researchers said.

The study concluded that exhaust gas, nanoplastics and airborne virus particles may have the same effect, noting that changes caused by man-made chemicals have “effects beyond pollination.”

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