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Humans are keeping bees awake at night

Published Jan 21st, 2021 10:19PM EST

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  • New research into the effects of manmade chemicals on insects has revealed that common pesticides can dramatically affect the brains of flies and bees. 
  • The chemicals throw the insects out of sync with the typical sleep/wake cycle, causing them to act differently.
  • The flies and bees in the study showed dramatic impacts on the memories of the insects as well.

You might not be fond of flies, bees, or other insects when they appear unannounced in your home, but the fact of the matter is that the tiny creatures play a vital role in the workings of the planet. Plants depend on insects like bees to thrive, and pesticides used in agriculture to kill unwanted pests are having a devastating effect on insects that they aren’t even targeting.

Now, new research reveals what some of those unfortunate side-effects are, and they’re incredibly scary, especially if you’re a bee or fly. The research, which appears as two separate studies, suggests that common manmade chemicals used in pesticides dramatically hinder the cognitive abilities of these important insects. More specifically, it messes with their perception of time, throwing them off of their typical sleep/wake cycle, and destroying their memories.

Knowing that populations of bees and other insects have seen serious drops over the past several decades, and building on the already strong evidence that pesticides and other manmade chemicals are to blame, the researchers tested a variety of chemicals on insects in the lab. The biggest change they saw was the difference in the amount of sleep the insects enjoyed.

“The neonicotinoids we tested had a big effect on the amount of sleep taken by both flies and bees,” Dr. Kiah Tasman, lead author of the studies, said in a statement. “If an insect was exposed to a similar amount as it might experience on a farm where the pesticide had been applied, it slept less, and its daily behavioural rhythms were knocked out of synch with the normal 24-hour cycle of day and night.”

Like humans and, well, every other animal on the planet, bees and flies need sleep. And, like the rest of the animal kingdom, if they don’t get enough sleep they’re much less efficient at what they do. In the case of the insects the team studied, the changes in the brain of the bugs were blamed for these altered sleep patterns.

“Being able to tell time is important for knowing when to be awake and forage, and it looked like these drugged insects were unable to sleep,” Dr. James Hodge, co-author of the work, explains. “We know quality sleep is important for insects, just as it is for humans, for their health and forming lasting memories.”

The specific chemicals used in this study, called neonicotinoids, are banned in Europe. They are, however, used in the United States, but with research like this piling up, it shouldn’t be long before they are banned stateside as well.

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