Pollen-Sized Technology Protects Bees From Deadly Insecticides


A Beemmunity employee, Abraham McCauley, applies a pollen patty with micro-sponges to a beehive as part of a colony experiment. Photo credit: Nathan Reid

Technology developed by Cornell provides beekeepers, consumers and farmers with an antidote to deadly pesticides that kill wild bees and cause beekeepers to lose an average of about a third of their hives every year.

An early version of the technology – which detoxifies a widely used group of insecticides called organophosphates – is described in a new study, Pollen-Inspired Enzymatic Microparticles to Reduce Organophosphate Toxicity in Managed Pollinators, published May 20, 2021 Natural food. The method of administration of the antivenom has now been adapted to effectively protect bees from all insecticides and has inspired a new company, Beemmunity, based in upstate New York.

Studies show that wax and pollen in 98% of hives in the US are contaminated with an average of six pesticides, which also lower a bee’s immunity to devastating varroa mites and pathogens. At the same time, pollinators do vital services by helping fertilize plants that result in the production of a third of the food we consume, according to the paper.

“We have a solution that enables beekeepers to feed their bees our microparticle products in pollen pie or in a sugar syrup and allow them to detoxify the beehive of any pesticides they may find,” said James Webb, MS ’20, a collaborator -Author of the paper and CEO of Beemmunity.

Lead author Jing Chen is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of lead author Minglin Ma, an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Scott McArt, Assistant Professor of Entomology at CALS, is also a co-author.

The paper focuses on organophosphate-based insecticides, which make up about a third of the insecticides on the market. A recent global meta-analysis of pesticide residue studies in beehives found that with current usage patterns, five insecticides presented significant risks to bees, two of which were organophosphates, McArt said.

The researchers developed a uniform, pollen-sized microparticle filled with enzymes that detoxify organophosphate insecticides before they are absorbed and harm the bee. The protective shell of the particle enables the enzymes to bypass the acidic and enzyme-degrading harvest (stomach) of the bee.

Microparticles can be mixed with pollen pie or sugar water, and once ingested, the protected enzymes travel through the acidic harvest to the midgut, where digestion takes place and toxins and nutrients are absorbed. There the enzymes can break down and detoxify the organophosphates.

After a series of in vitro experiments, the researchers tested the system on live bees in the laboratory. They fed contaminated pollen to a beehive pod with malathion, an organophosphate pesticide, and also fed it the microparticles with enzymes. A control group was fed the toxic pollen at the same time, without the enzyme-filled microparticles.

Bees fed the microparticles with a high dose of the enzyme had a 100% survival rate after exposure to malathion. Meanwhile, unprotected control bees died within a few days.

Beemmunity goes one step further: instead of filling the microparticles with enzymes that break down an insecticide, the particles have a shell made of insect proteins and are filled with a special absorbent oil, creating a kind of microsponge. Many insecticides, including widely used neonicotinoids, are designed to target insect proteins so that the microparticle shell sucks in the insecticide where it is sequestered in the shell. Eventually, the bees simply empty the sequestered toxin.

The company is conducting colony-scale trials on 240 beehives in New Jersey this summer and plans to launch its products publicly from February 2022. Products include microparticle sponges in a dry sugar medium that can be added to pollen pies or sugar water, and consumer bee-eater in development.

“This is an affordable, scalable solution that we hope will be a first step in addressing insecticide toxicity and helping protect managed pollinators,” said Ma.

Reference: “Pollen-Inspired Enzymatic Microparticles to Reduce Organophosphate Toxicity in Managed Pollinators” by Jing Chen, James Webb, Kaavian Shariati, Shengbo Guo, Jin-Kim Montclare, Scott McArt, and Minglin Ma, May 20, 2021, Natural food.
DOI: 10.1038 / s43016-021-00282-0

Jin-Kim Montclare, researcher at New York University‘s Tandon School of Engineering, is co-author.

The technology is licensed through the Cornell Center for Technology Licensing (CTL). Ma and McArt are consultants to Beemmunity.

The study was funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.