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Are Bumblebees Getting Alzheimer’s?

posted: 06/08/15
by: Danny Clemens
Bumblebee on orange flower
alhook1/iStock

It's no secret that bees are in crisis right now - a recent 40% decline in bee populations has been blamed on harmful pesticides and mite infestations, but researchers have now identified yet another potential threat to the buzzing pollinators: aluminum.

According to a new joint study from Keele University and the University of Sussix, bumblebees are now suffering from troubling amounts of aluminum contamination, which could be the cause of debilitating cognitive dysfunction.

"Aluminum is a known neurotoxin affecting behavior in animal models of aluminum intoxication. Bees, of course, rely heavily on cognitive function in their everyday behavior and these data raise the intriguing specter that aluminum-induced cognitive dysfunction may play a role in their population decline - are we looking at bees with Alzheimer's disease?" asks Keele's Chris Exley.

Exely and his colleague Dave Goulson tested the aluminum levels of pupae from bumblebee colonies. Whereas an aluminum level of 3ppm would be harmful to human brain tissue, some pupae were found to have aluminum levels as high as 200ppm.

The excess aluminum has a variety of origins, according to Exely and Goulson. "Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels resulting in 'acid rain', intensive agriculture producing acid sulphate soils and the mining of aluminum ores to make aluminum metal and salts have all contributed to the burgeoning biological availability of this non-essential metal," they write.

Previous research has already linked high levels of aluminum exposure to the death of fish in acid lakes and low crop productivity in acidified soils.

Click here to read the full study in the open-access journal PLoS ONE

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