Some types of bees have adapted plastic to their needs, namely for building nests. Some scientists decided that they would solve the plastic problem. But an ecologist at the University of Utah is adamantly opposed. In an article for Science Matters, he explained why using bees to tackle plastic pollution is a bad idea.
The accumulation of plastic waste in the environment is a potential threat to human health and wildlife. Bioengineers around the world are working to create plastic-eating “super enzymes” that can rapidly break down the molecular structure of a synthetic material to aid its disposal and recycling.
In a study published in 2019, scientists found that alfalfa leaf-cutting bees used plastic waste to build their nests. Experts have suggested that this behavior of bees can be adapted to human needs in plastic recycling.
“Not so fast,” says USU Utah evolutionary ecologist Joseph Wilson.
“Just because bees can use plastic doesn’t mean they have to!”
Wilson and several scientists have written a joint review article on the behavior of bees of the genus Megachile when building nests.
“Leaf cutter bees are some of the most recognizable solitary bees because of their habit of carving out circles from leaves to build their cylindrical nests,” says Wilson, assistant professor of biology at USU. “We heard reports of bees using plastic in construction and agriculture and decided to investigate.”
Plastic construction can change the dynamics and habitat of bee nests. Plastic does not “breathe” like natural materials. In the 1970s, a researcher allowed leaf-cutting bees to nest in plastic straws and found that ninety percent of the bee’s offspring had died due to fungal growth. The plastic blocked the exit of moisture and did not interfere with gas exchange.
Joseph Wilson, Associate Professor, USU
Wilson says he and his colleagues need the help of civilian scientists to keep an eye on leaf-cutting bees using plastic debris. He encourages observers to tweet him at @BeesBackyard or email firstname.lastname@example.org.