Bees are attracted to nectar containing common pesticides, scientists at Newcastle University and Trinity College Dublin have discovered. This could increase their chances of exposure to high levels of pesticides.

Previous studies have suggested that exposure of this kind can affect bees’ fitness. The research, published in Nature, discovered that buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees could not taste the three most commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides and so did not avoid them. In fact, the bees showed a preference for food which contained pesticides: when the bees were given a choice between sugar solution, and sugar solution containing neonicotinoids, they chose the neonicotinoid-laced food.

The lab-based study also showed that the bumblebees ate more of the food containing pesticides than the honeybees, and so were exposed to higher doses of toxins.

Bees and other pollinating insects are important for increasing crop yields — their value has been estimated to be worth at least €153billion per year globally. When pollinating crops, they can be exposed to pesticides in floral nectar and pollen. Several controversial studies have shown that neonicotinoids have negative effects on bee foraging and colony fitness. As a result, public concern has grown over the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators. In April 2013, the EU introduced a temporary ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on flowering crops, while further scientific and technical evidence was gathered.

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