Once ingested from a plant, Glyphosate attacks bacteria in the bee’s digestive system. It weakens their immune system, and increases the likelihood of infection and death, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have discovered. Glyphosate kills plants by shutting down specific enzymes, but little has been known about the health issues It poses to humans, animals, and insects.
The researchers published their study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their work indicates that glyphosate is just as much a danger to a bee as it is a plant, a dog, or a human. They also hypothesized that the chemical does damage to the bee microbiome, Newsweek reports, which includes the bacteria both inside and outside their exoskeleton.
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“We need better guidelines for glyphosate use, especially regarding bee exposure, because right now the guidelines assume bees are not harmed by the herbicide,” Erick Motta, the graduate student who led the research along with professor Nancy Moran, told Science Daily. “Our study shows that’s not true.”
Herbicides that contain glyphosates, like Monsanto’s Roundup, were formulated and approved for use on the idea that the substance only affects microorganisms and plants. While that may be true, this discounts the fact that those microorganisms are beneficial, sometimes even critical, especially to bees.
The researchers exposed honey bees to the same levels of glyphosate that one would find near a Roundup-treated crop field. Where at least eight different species of healthy bacteria were present in the bee digestive tracts before the glyphosate application, only four of them were thriving after they were treated.
When another pathogen was introduced, the bees with the compromised gut bacteria were among the first to die out.
“Studies in humans, bees and other animals have shown that the gut microbiome is a stable community that resists infection by opportunistic invaders,” Moran said. “So if you disrupt the normal, stable community, you are more susceptible to this invasion of pathogens.”
Bee colonies have been devastated in the past decade. The massive die-offs have been blamed on climate change, mite infestations, and other mysterious forces at work, but the link between their disappearance and glyphosate usage is undeniable.
“It’s not the only thing causing all these bee deaths, but it is definitely something people should worry about because glyphosate is used everywhere,” Motta said.
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.