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Learning Impairment in Honey Bees Caused by Agricultural Spray Adjuvants

Published in PLoS ONE

Timothy J. Ciarlo*, Christopher A. Mullin, James L. Frazier,Daniel R. Schmehl

Department of Entomology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, United States of America

Abstract Top


Spray adjuvants are often applied to crops in conjunction with agricultural pesticides in order to boost the efficacy of the active ingredient(s). The adjuvants themselves are largely assumed to be biologically inert and are therefore subject to minimal scrutiny and toxicological testing by regulatory agencies. Honey bees are exposed to a wide array of pesticides as they conduct normal foraging operations, meaning that they are likely exposed to spray adjuvants as well. It was previously unknown whether these agrochemicals have any deleterious effects on honey bee behavior.

Methodology/Principal Findings

An improved, automated version of the proboscis extension reflex (PER) assay with a high degree of trial-to-trial reproducibility was used to measure the olfactory learning ability of honey bees treated orally with sublethal doses of the most widely used spray adjuvants on almonds in the Central Valley of California. Three different adjuvant classes (nonionic surfactants, crop oil concentrates, and organosilicone surfactants) were investigated in this study. Learning was impaired after ingestion of 20 µg organosilicone surfactant, indicating harmful effects on honey bees caused by agrochemicals previously believed to be innocuous. Organosilicones were more active than the nonionic adjuvants, while the crop oil concentrates were inactive. Ingestion was required for the tested adjuvant to have an effect on learning, as exposure via antennal contact only induced no level of impairment.


A decrease in percent conditioned response after ingestion of organosilicone surfactants has been demonstrated here for the first time. Olfactory learning is important for foraging honey bees because it allows them to exploit the most productive floral resources in an area at any given time. Impairment of this learning ability may have serious implications for foraging efficiency at the colony level, as well as potentially many social interactions. Organosilicone spray adjuvants may therefore contribute to the ongoing global decline in honey bee health.

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Funding: Funding was received from the United States Department of Agriculture - National Institute of Food and Agriculture - Coordinated Agricultural Project and Foundational Award programs, The Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and Sigma Xi. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.