Urban Bees Repurpose Plastic Bags And Sealants To Build Their Hives

By Josh Lieberman on February 12, 2014 3:16 PM EST

Bees plastic
Two urban bee species use bits of plastic to build their hives. Above, one of species, Megachile rotundata. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Bees in Canada are taking plastic and using it to build their hives, according to a study published in the journal Ecosphere. Researchers in Toronto found that two species of bees use bits of plastic bags, caulking and other man-made materials to create their hives. The findings show that bees can adapt their behavior to human-dominated environments, say the researchers. 

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"Plastic waste pervades the global landscape," writes the researcher team, led by Scott MacIvor, a doctoral student at York University in Toronto. "Although adverse impacts on both species and ecosystems have been documented, there are few observations of behavioral flexibility and adaptation in species, especially insects, to increasingly plastic-rich environments."

The study came about when MacIvor noticed a "goo" on the hives of Megachile campanulae, a bee species native to Ontario which uses plant resin in hives. "Scott [MacIvor] thought it might be chewing gum originally,"  said Andrew Moore of the University of Guelph in Ontario. Using a scanning electron microscope, Moore took detailed pictures of the goo and performed x-ray microanalysis on it. The goo turned out to be building sealant; another bee species, Megachile rotundata, was found to use bits of polyurethane-based bags to build up to 25 percent of each hive.

"I didn't really believe it at first," said MacIvor. "There had been anecdotal evidence of bees using plastics in their hives, but it had never been reported."  

Markings on the plastic showed that the bees chewed plastic in a different way than they chewed leaves, indicating that the bees didn't just happen to collect bits of plastic. "The plastic materials had been gathered by the bees, and then worked-chewed up and spit out like gum-to form something new that they could use," said Moore.

MacIvor isn't sure why bees are using the plastic, given that the hives are in areas where plenty of natural materials are available. He theorized that it may be because bees use the closest materials available, whether they be plastic or natural, in order to minimize the amount of time they're away from their hives. 

The plastic appeared to offer bees some benefits. Larvae in hives built with plastic all grew to adulthood, and these hives were also parasite-free, indicating that plastic may play a role in repelling parasites. Whether or not the bees are cognizant of that, their adaptability in using plastic is further evidence that bees may be very smart indeed.    

READ MORE:

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How 5,000 Honey Bees With Tiny 'Backpack' Sensors Will Explain Vanishing Populations

One Stab Of The Apocephalus Borealis Fly Creates 'Zombie Bees' Out Of East Coast Honey Bees

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