Scientists in Argentina have issued a human health warning as their study shows that honeybees do not avoid water and sugar sources that are contaminated with microplastics.
The pollution of the ecosystem with microplastics from food packaging and cosmetics is considered one of the most worrying environmental developments of the 21st century. Microplastic fragments have been detected in the air, water and nutrition such as fruit, vegetables and honey.
Mismanaged plastic waste often ends up in oceans and rivers. Fragmented plastic particles of less than 5 millimetres in size are termed microplastics. The smallest microplastics detected in the oceans are 1.6 micrometres in diameter.
Now a team of scientists has investigated the impact of microplastic contamination on honeybees’ pollinating activities in Argentina’s Patagonia region.
Dr Micaela Buteler is a researcher at the National University of Comahue’s Inibioma Conicet Institute for Biodiversity and Environment. She announced: “Our results show microplastic fibres are incorporated into the beehive when they are ingested by bees.
“We showed that honeybees can pick up the microplastics present in the environment through ingestion and through their cuticles. Moreover, they do not avoid sucrose sources when they are contaminated with microplastics.”
The expert on land resources and environmental sciences revealed that all the Patagonia freshwater lakes her team had examined were contaminated with secondary microplastics. Textile-based microplastic fibres were predominant, according to Dr Buteler.
Secondary plastics are small pieces of plastic that are undetectable to the naked eye. They derive from the breakdown of larger plastic debris at sea and on land.
Dr Buteler explained that, according to her team’s investigations, microplastics were not posing an imminent threat to the health of honeybees through acute mortality.
However, the scientist warned: “We also found that honeybees do not avoid water and sugar sources that are contaminated with microplastics. Thus, there could be long-term effects from chronic exposure that need to be studied.”
The investigations by Dr Buteler and her five study co-authors reveal that microplastics are incorporated into the hive, honey and brood.
Dr Buteler warned: “Our results show that microplastics can enter the food chain by being incorporated into the honey, with direct implications for human health. Our results also agree with previous studies reporting plastic pollution even in remote areas of the world.”
The former Montana State University student warned that honeybees were picking up microplastics from the air, water and nectar.
She said: “They are particularly fragile organisms, as global numbers are decreasing due to factors including habitat disruption, pesticides, and climate change.”
The biologists published their study entitled “Acute toxicity of microplastic fibers to honeybees and effects on foraging behavior” in the Science of The Total Environment magazine.
Argentina’s 13,700 beekeepers were managing around 3.4 million hives as of July 2020, according to a report by research group Statista.