Pesticide reduces bumblebee colony initiation and increases probability of population extinction


Pollinators are in global decline and agricultural pesticides are a potential driver of this. Recent studies have suggested that pesticides may significantly impact bumblebee colonies—an important and declining group of pollinators. Here, we show that colony-founding queens, a critical yet vulnerable stage of the bumblebee lifecycle, are less likely to initiate a colony after exposure to thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid insecticide. Bombus terrestris queens were exposed to field-relevant levels of thiamethoxam and two natural stressors: the parasite Crithidia bombi and varying hibernation durations. Exposure to thiamethoxam caused a 26% reduction in the proportion of queens that laid eggs, and advanced the timing of colony initiation, although we did not detect impacts of any experimental treatment on the ability of queens to produce adult offspring during the 14-week experimental period. As expected from previous studies, the hibernation duration also had an impact on egg laying, but there was no significant interaction with insecticide treatment. Modelling the impacts of a 26% reduction in colony founding on population dynamics dramatically increased the likelihood of population extinction. This shows that neonicotinoids can affect this critical stage in the bumblebee lifecycle and may have significant impacts on population dynamics.

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Fig. 1: Effect of hibernation length and pesticide exposure on colony initiation.
Fig. 2: Effect of pesticide exposure on egg laying.
Fig. 3: Effect of pesticide exposure on colony capacity.


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The authors thank S. Baldwin, B. McCrea, O. Ramos-Rodriguez and D. Wells for assistance in the laboratory and L. Evans, M. Fürst, C. Jones, E. Leadbeater, F. Manfredini, K. Smith and D. Stanley for comments. We thank The Crown Estate for permission to collect wild bumblebees at Windsor Great Park and S. Doble for permission to survey fields at Shiplake Farm. This study was supported by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative grants BB/I000178/1 (awarded to N.E.R.) and BB/1000151/1 (awarded to M.J.F.B. and V.A.A.J.), funded jointly by the Living with Environmental Change programme, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Scottish Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural Environment Research Council, and a Natural Environment Research Council studentship to G.L.B. N.E.R. is supported as the Rebanks Family Chair in Pollinator Conservation by The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

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G.L.B., M.J.F.B. and N.E.R. conceived the project and designed the experiment. G.L.B. carried out the experiment and statistical analyses. V.A.A.J. carried out the modelling. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Gemma L. Baron or Vincent A. A. Jansen or Mark J. F. Brown or Nigel E. Raine.

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Baron, G.L., Jansen, V.A.A., Brown, M.J.F. et al. Pesticide reduces bumblebee colony initiation and increases probability of population extinction. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1308–1316 (2017).

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