London researchers have discovered that treating bees with light therapy can counteract the harmful effects of neonicotinoid pesticides and improve the survival rates of poisoned bees.

Researchers at University College London (UCL)’s cutting-edge Institute of Ophthalmology have been studying near-infrared light therapy because of its benefits not only for bees, but also for other animals including humans, particularly to counteract effects of ageing and a range of neurological diseases.

“Neonicotinoid pesticides are a persistent threat to global bee populations, which play a critical role in agriculture,” says Glen Jeffery, Professor of Neuroscience at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology. “My team is working to develop a small device that can be fitted into a commercial hive, which could be an economic solution to a problem with very widespread implications.”

The pesticides compromise the bees’ production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that transports chemical energy within cells. This results in reduced mobility among bees exposed to neonicotinoids, leading them to die of starvation, as they are unable to go out and forage to feed themselves.

The researchers used four groups of bees from commercial hives, with more than 400 bees in each colony. Two groups were exposed to a neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, for 10 days, with one group also being treated with light therapy over the same period – 15 minutes of near infrared light (670nm) was shone into the hive twice daily.

The poisoned bees not treated with light therapy showed a rapid drop in mobility and ATP levels, and their survival rate declined accordingly. The bees that were poisoned but also treated with light therapy had significantly better mobility and survival rates, living just as long and functioning just as well as bees that had not been poisoned. One group was given light therapy without being poisoned, and their survival rate was even better than the control group. The researchers found the deep red light did not interfere with bee behaviour as they cannot see it.

“Long-wavelength light treatments have been shown in other studies to reduce mitochondrial degeneration which results from ageing processes. It’s beneficial even for bees that aren’t affected by pesticides, so light therapy can be an effective means of preventing loss of life in case a colony becomes exposed to neonicotinoids. It’s win-win,” Professor Jeffery says.

While timer-controlled lights installed in hives could be a useful ongoing preventative measure, it was also found that bees harmed by neonicotinoids could be brought back to health if light therapy were administered within a couple of days of exposure.

“We found that by shining deep red light on the bee which had been affected by the toxic pesticides that they could recover, as it improved mitochondrial and visual function, and enabled them to move around and feed again,” adds lead author Dr Michael Powner.

The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the leading funding agency for academic research and training in the biosciences at universities and institutes throughout the UK. Biotechnology is a rapid growth sector in London, with the majority of biotech companies spinning out of the city’s medical schools and universities including UCL, Imperial College, King’s, and Guy’s & St Thomas Medical School.


Featured image: A bee exposed to Imidacloprid, with bent front legs, withdrawn antenna, and matted fur causing loss of yellow colouration (Source: UCL)


(via UCL and New Atlas)