Bees: paying with plastic

Plastic is everywhere in this anthropocene.  I have friends who study deep sea vents miles down on the ocean floor.  They use photographs to view changes over time…they make sure the photos are oriented correctly using a stable marker.  In places where humans have never been before, they use that blue suitcase, that toilet seat lid.  It’s shocking how pervasive our impacts have been.

Plastic, the fabric of our lives.

Megachile pugnata

Megachile pugnata

Despite the many detrimental environmental impacts of plastics (and there are many), there has been a recent development of some interest: bees are using plastics as nest materials!  This paper by MacIvor and Moore (2013) came out just a few weeks ago, titled “Bees collect polyurethane and polyethylene plastics as novel nest materials.”  (I’m so proud of my clever bees!)

Male Megachile brevis

Male Megachile brevis

Essentially, some leaf-cutter bees (family Megachilidae) have been using plastic waste to construct nests.  I mentioned their nests in my post on the myriad nest structures of bees…normally they use flower petals or leaves.  This article suggests that they not only use plastic, but that they cut plastic differently than leaves, and there were abundant leaves in the area. Thus, the bees are deliberately targeting the plastics.

IMG_3064

Leucopsis is an example of a bee parasite

Even more interestingly, the bees successfully reared young from the plastic nests and those offspring were parasite free!  The authors suggest that the plastic may inhibit parasites and thereby increase the fitness of the bees.

Figure 2 from MacIvor and Moore 2013, showing nests constructed using polyurethane plastics

Figure 2 from MacIvor and Moore 2013, showing nests constructed using polyethylene plastics

Of the two species mentioned in the manuscript, Megachile rotundata uses polyethylene plastics to build nest cells in place of leaves, while Megachile campanulae uses grout like plastics in place of natural resins.

This phenomenon has been recorded elsewhere, suggesting that it could be more widespread than we would expect. For example in Greece:

photo by Jelle Devalez

Nests made by Megachile apicalis, photo by Jelle Devalez

It looks like the bees are adapting to take advantage of this ubiquitous new material in their environment.  Go bees!

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12 thoughts on “Bees: paying with plastic

    • We don’t really know! It is certainly an abundant resource in their world. We know that they use all sorts of construction materials. It could just be that plastic is common enough to be seen as “just another kind of plant”.

  1. I too thought of the questions of others here. It is odd the bees would use plastic when their natural materials are well, natural. Maybe the color attracts them initially. Then I would surmise that the chemical polymers that make up PET and PVC would leach. Maybe because plastics are carbon based is why bees use them.

    • I really think it is a matter of how abundant they are in the ecosystem. A certain number of plastic bags and bam they are like a new kind of plant popping up everywhere. But I think you’re right about the leaching…so far no evidence of negative effects though.

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