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Can Spider Venom Save the Honeybee?

Controlling pests is a constant challenge for farmers. Months of hard work can disappear in no time as insects munch their way across a planted field.

Synthetic insecticides can beat back the swarms, but they also affect other creatures. A new study, just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, offers hope for the future—a bio-based poison that zaps only the bad bugs.

The new pesticide, based on the venom of a particular spider, kills common agricultural pests but leaves honeybees unharmed. (See “Honeybees in East Africa Resist Deadly Pathogens.”)

A honey bee collecting pollen.
A honeybee (Apis mellifera) collects pollen from an apple tree flower. Photograph by Solvin Zankl/Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Corbis

The bee-friendly nature of this pesticide is a big selling point. Honeybees are vital pollinators, but their numbers are declining around the world. There’s still much debate about the causes, and about the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), but conventional pesticides are thought to play a major role in the increased mortality. Toxins known as neonicotinoids have already been banned in the European Union because of their adverse effects on honeybees.

Pesticide Recipe

The new pesticide recipe starts with the venom of an Australian funnel-web spider, Hadronyche versuta.

Spider venom is a good candidate for an eco-friendly insecticide base because it’s created to kill pests in the first place. “Most spiders, when they try to get their prey, they’re targeting other insects,” says Elaine Fitches, a science officer at the Food and Environment Research Agency in the U.K., who co-authored the new study.

The venom contains useful component parts called peptides that differ in their targets and effects.

“The venom of funnel webs has been well studied and contains hundreds of peptides,” explains Pierre Escoubas, president of VenomeTech, a French company that specializes in developing venom-based therapies.

Many of those peptides are toxic to vertebrates, adds Escoubas, who was not involved in this study. “But some specifically target insect nervous systems while being harmless to vertebrates, and are thus good candidates for the development of novel biopesticides.”

To make the new biopesticide, scientists created a “fusion protein,” combining a spider-venom peptide and a kind of protein called lectin from the snowdrop plant.

The venom peptide would normally degrade in the insect’s gut when eaten. But the lectin acts as a carrier that allows the venom to pass from the gut to the central nervous system, where it has its intended lethal effect.

Researchers tested the venom-based pesticide on several common agricultural pests, including potato beetles, aphids, and armyworms. The toxin worked, disrupting nerve transmission and causing paralysis.

Happy Honeybees

The results were quite different when researchers tested the biopesticide on the European honeybee, apis mellifera mellifera. It was harmful to bees only in very high doses. At lower doses, in the range that bees might encounter in the field, it had no effect on survival or on the bee’s memory or ability to learn. (See “U.S. Honeybee Losses Not as Severe This Year.”)

The fact that the venom doesn’t bother bees is a significant discovery. “You’re talking about something that’s going to be pretty much benign,” says Fitches. “It benefits the environment.”

Why bees seem to be largely immune to the biopesticide’s effects may be rooted in genetics.

“Receptors of toxins … can vary slightly between insect groups,” says Escoubas. “Therefore various insect classes may be more or less sensitive to the effect of a given toxin. In this case, bees are apparently not very sensitive.”

The potential of the new pesticide lies in its specificity, say researchers—in its ability to target pests without harming threatened pollinators.

Major Step Forward

“It is important that governments and industry develop pesticides that are as specific to their target pests as possible,” says Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University, another study co-author.

“Our work shows that, depending on the metabolic target, it is possible to make insecticides that do not affect honeybees.” (See: “Intimate Portraits of Bees.”)

Escoubas called the findings  “a major step forward,” noting the importance of both the apparently selective nature of the pesticide and the fact that a protein-based pesticide would degrade rapidly and not linger in the environment long-term.

More research is required to assess the safety of the new pesticide—especially how it affects other beneficial insects such as bumblebees and wasps. But if it comes into regular use someday, that could be very bad news for pests and very good news for everyone else.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Colleen Morris
    Queensland Australia
    August 23, 4:34 am

    Is everyone missing something here? The toxin of the Australian Funnel web spider is deadly to humans as well. What is the point of producing a safe insecticide if we can’t eat the produce without being poisoned either.

  2. Save the bee's
    United Kingdom
    June 25, 7:04 am

    “zaps only bad bugs”
    WHY SHOULD WE ‘ZAP’ ANY BUGS!!

    Let life be life – every creature is just finding their experience and traveling in space across the universe

  3. S B
    Canada
    June 11, 9:33 pm

    Only if we poison the poisoners who produce these earth-destroying chemicals, like Monsanto and Bayer et al, will we ever be able to protect our drinking water and food supply. When are we going to learn that chemicals are not the answer? No chemicals, no pesticides, no herbicides. No GMOs. No dirty oil and coal. Clean energy only, clean fields, organic only.

  4. MelissaPal
    Barnegat NJ
    June 11, 2:34 pm

    I’ve always hear lady bugs were excellent to use to protect gardens… isn’t this the best solution.. au natural..

  5. Larry
    June 11, 8:46 am

    Ok so this does not hurt bees, that is the first step. This is a poison that affects things that eat it. I must ask this question because it is just as important to our ecosystem as bees are.

    Does it cause any harm to EARTHWORMS? If it does, this poison is definitely not bio friendly. Earthworms maintain good bacteria in the soil and naturally produce nitrogen for plants. Their skin has a mucus that is antibacterial.

  6. Andy Hefty
    United States
    June 10, 11:13 pm

    Is a pesticide company paying you Nora G and William? The EU made a decision to ban because there is not enough evidence to support use of neonics without consequences to pollinators. The US is reviewing use but won’t ban despite lack of research…which is better?

  7. derrick
    harare sports club
    June 8, 11:59 am

    Nat Geo,I’d spend the whole day watching it…

  8. Rob Williams
    USA
    June 8, 9:10 am

    Perhaps the bees respond differently to “low doses of spider venom” since they are venom producers themselves. Has anyone looked at the effect this “poison” has had on bee venom?

  9. Clint Crossley
    Glimåkra, Sweden
    June 7, 11:41 am

    I agree with Joh Salt.
    Gathercole and NoraG use a pile of words to say “unlikely.”
    Bad agricultural practices, including GMO, are dangerous- no maybes no unlikelys!

  10. Joh Salt
    Scotland
    June 7, 9:24 am

    This ‘bio-pesticide’ (GMO) uses the same snowdrop GNA lectin … Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) as Árpád Pusztai used in his GM potato at the Rowett Institute back in 1998 ? Look what happen there !

    This also has overtones of the work carried out at Newcastle using baculovirus proteins and Scorpion venom to knock out certain insects – being airborne delivered.

    We now also have a new line of cabbages containing scorpion venom to kill insects that feed on them.

    The story above also states ” is unlikely to cause any detrimental effects on honeybees” … ‘unlikely’ being the key word.

    This madness must STOP !

  11. WILLIAM H. GATHERCOLE AND NORAH G
    June 7, 4:18 am

    NORAHG RESPONDS THAT NEONICOTINOID INSECTICIDES ARE ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY

    FORGET ABOUT TOXIC SPIDER VENOM. Safe and effective conventional products are already available to the agriculture industry. They are called neonicotinoid insecticides. There is NO unambiguous evidence to suggest that neonicotinoid insecticides are to blame for bee colony collapse disorder. Under normal use, neonicotinoid insecticides will cause no harm. In the European Union, prohibition against neonicotinoid insecticides was a reaction to mere over-heated rhetoric. Why are neonicotinoid insecticides environmentally-friendly and cause no harm to bees ? It is because they are coated on agricultural seed, and the seed is buried in the soil, so it is inaccessible to the bees. Moreover, neonicotinoid insecticides have extremely low toxicity to humans, extremely low toxicity to other mammals as well as birds and fish. They have NO persistence beyond the levels that you would expect in an agricultural field for one year. Additionally, there is NO reason to believe that neonicotinoid insecticides persist in water over long periods of time. In fact, studies in both Europe and in North America have proven there is NO accumulation and NO bio-accumulation after 10 consecutive years. Science and statistics DO NOT support demands to recklessly prohibit against neonicotinoid insecticides used in the agriculture industry. There are NO valid reasons for their prohibition. If we had less pesticide use in the environment, we would still have bee colony collapse disorder, because MANY BEE-KEEPERS ARE NOT COMPETENT TO MANAGE THEIR HIVES. For the whole truth regarding bees, go to … http://wp.me/p1jq40-7zT http://wp.me/p1jq40-6WJ http://wp.me/p1jq40-2ba http://wp.me/p1jq40-6H8 http://wp.me/p1jq40-7ty NORAHG is the National Organization Responding Against HUJE that seek to harm the Green space industry. WILLIAM H. GATHERCOLE AND NORAH G. Get the latest details at The Pesticide Truths Web-Site http://pesticidetruths.com/ and go to The Complete Library Of Web-Pages, Reports, & References http://wp.me/P1jq40-2rr