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Study reveals why bumblebees are unable to form new colonies putting populations at risk

Copyright: Emily Bailes, Royal Holloway, University of London
News from: Royal Holloway, University of London

Bumblebees are less able to start colonies when exposed to a common neonicotinoid pesticide, which could lead to collapses in wild bee populations, according to new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Guelph have found that exposure to thiamethoxam, a common pesticide, reduced the chances of a bumblebee queen starting a new colony by more than a quarter. Building on field studies, the researchers used mathematical models of bumblebee populations which showed that thiamethoxam exposure significantly increases the likelihood that wild bee populations could become extinct.

“Queens exposed to the pesticide were 26% less likely to lay eggs to start a colony,” said Dr Gemma Baron, from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway. “Creating new bee colonies is vital for the survival of bumblebees - if queens don’t produce eggs or start new colonies it is possible that bumblebees could die out completely.”

“We used mathematical models to show that this reduction in colony founding is a very real threat to the survival of wild bumblebee populations,” said Professor Vincent Jansen, also from Royal Holloway. “Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of pesticide in the world. It is vital that we understand the effects of these pesticides on our wildlife before allowing their continued use.”

The EU has issued a temporary ban on the use of thiamethoxam, as well as two other neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids have long been implicated in the decline of bees, butterflies and other species, and there is currently global debate about their usage.

Copyright: Emily Bailes, Royal Holloway, University of London
Creating new colonies is vital for their survival. Copyright: Dr Emily Bailes, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Professor Nigel Raine from the University of Guelph commented: “This research shows that these pesticides can have a devastating effect on bees, and we urgently need to know more about how pesticides could be affecting other species.”

Bumblebee queens already face a hugely challenging task if try to start new colonies. They must first survive the winter, which can cause them to lose up to 80% of their fat reserves, and then surmount the threats posed by, parasites, predators, bad weather, and a lack of resources. The additional impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides could prove devastating.

Professor Mark Brown, also of Royal Holloway, says “Our work is a major step forward in understanding how pesticides may impact bumblebees and other pollinating species.”

This study was funded by a BBSRC-DTG studentship, and the Insect Pollinators Initiative (joint-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust.


Notes to editors

Publication: Pesticide reduces bumblebee colony establishment and increases probability of population extinction by Baron GL, Jansen VAA, Brown MJF, Raine NE was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution 2017. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0260-1.

About Royal Holloway, University of London

Royal Holloway, University of London, is ranked in the top 30 of all UK universities. Through world-class research that expands minds and changes lives, the dedication of our teachers and the feel of the Royal Holloway experience, ours is a community that inspires individuals to succeed academically, socially and personally.

The university was founded by two social reformers who pioneered the ideal of education and knowledge for all who could benefit. Their vision lives on today. As one of the UK’s leading research intensive universities, Royal Holloway is home to some of the world’s foremost authorities in the sciences, arts, business, economics and law. We are strengthened by diversity, and welcome students and academics who travel from all over the world to study and work here, ensuring an international and multi-cultural perspective within a close knit and historic campus.

About Defra

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is a government department in the UK that makes policy and legislation. Defra works with others to deliver policies in areas such as:

  • the natural environment, biodiversity, plants and animals
  • sustainable development and the green economy
  • food, farming and fisheries
  • animal health and welfare
  • environmental protection and pollution control
  • rural communities and issues.

About NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300 million a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund research and training in universities and its own research centres.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

External contact

Amy Sutton, Marketing and Communications, Royal Holloway, University of London

01784 443552

Tags: food security ecology biology neonicotinoids bees research news