Urban Bees Using Plastic to Build Nests
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A bee flies from plant to plant while feeding on a flowering Anigozanthus, also known as Kangaroo Paws, at a nursery in San Gabriel, California on March 25, 2013.
A sailing ship is visible on the Bodensee lake near Ueberlingen, Germany, on May 1, 2013. Flowers at the lakeside are visible in the front.
Visitors enjoy watching the Blue Nemophila flowers bloom during the Golden Week holidays, at Hitachinaka Kaihin Park on May 5, 2013 in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki, Japan.
A field of tulips at Magdeburg Börde in Schwaneberg, Germany, on May 3, 2013. Different species of the spring flowers are grown on more than 40 hectars.
A visitor looks at blooms at the Rhododendron Park in Bremen, Germany, on May 10, 2013. Nature is catching up after the unusually long winter. One effect is that rhododendrons normally bloom in succession, but now all of the flowers are blooming at once.
Villagers trim the tulip blossoms at a planting base in Qushui County, Lhasa City, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, May 9, 2013. The seed bulbs of tulip flowers were introduced into Lhasa from Yunnan Province.
Blossoms of a peach tree are visible in a garden in Eichwalde, Germany, on April 29, 2013.
A bee approaches cherry tree blossoms during a sunny spring day at a park in Brussels on April 14, 2013.
A woman meditates under a blooming cherry tree on the edge of the Potomace river in Washington D.C., on April 9, 2013.
A bee sits on a blooming Japanese cherry tree at the castle gardens in Schwetzingen, Germany, on April 15, 2013.
Different colored pansies are grown at a nursery near Kitzingen, Germany, 26 March 2013.
The sun shines through a blooming syringa bush in Berlin, Germany, on May 12, 2013.
The Guinness Book of World Records this spring certified this wisteria vine -- blooming at a Sierra Madre home on March 14, 2013, near Los Angeles -- as the world's largest blossoming plant. The wisteria vine is more than one acre in size and weighs 250 tons. It has more than 1.5 million blossoms every year with 40 blooms per square foot. The branches of this wisteria vine reach an 500 feet long. Horticultural experts have estimated the branches can grow 24 inches in 24 hours. The wisteria vine is a Chinese variety. It was planted in 1894 by William and Alice Brugman.
Blossoms of a Magnolia tree are visible on a sunny day with a clear blue sky in Dresden, Germany, 26 April 2013.
A bee seeks nectar on a ceanothus shrub at the Fullerton Arboretum in California.
White flowers on branches of the North American Cornus 'Florida', Flowering Dogwood.
Comedian George Carlin once joked that perhaps the Earth wanted plastic, yet didn’t know how to produce it. So, the planet spawned humans only so that we could create the polymer. Two species of leafcutter bee seem to have taken Carlin seriously and now incorporate plastic into their nests.
In Toronto, bees were observed using shreds of plastic bags or dollops of polyurethane sealant to construct some of their nests. Leafcutter bees don’t form hives like honey bees. Instead, solitary females stitch together nests, usually from plant materials.
A European bee that’s now in Canada, the alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata), normally snips off bits of leaves and flowers to build its nest. In the Canadian study, three out of eight nests from this bee contained bits of plastic bags, an average 23 percent of the construction materials. Course, irregular cut marks on the edges of the plastic suggested that the bees cut them differently than leaves.
The journal Ecosphere published this research, conducted by scientists from York University and University of Guleph.
Another bee, the Canadian native Megachile campanulae, normally collects sticky resins and sap from trees. However, the ecologists discovered polyurethane sealant incorporated into two out of seven of the insect’s brooding chambers.
Although the collection may have been accidental, the ecologists said the bees’ innovative use could be a useful adaptation to a human-dominated ecosystem, since the plastic may supplement scarce supplies of leaves. However, this didn’t seem to be the case, they noted, since several nests contained only leaves and the nests with the plastic also incorporated leaves after the plastic had been glued into place. The bees simply may have used the plastic because of its structural similarity to the materials they naturally use.
Plastic could have pros and cons for the bees. The plastic bags didn’t stick together like leaves, which the bees chew into a natural glue. The bag-built nests crumbled easily.
On the positive side, the bag-nested bees didn’t suffer attacks from parasites, although the polyurethane-using bees did. Research from the 70s found that when leafcutters nested inside plastic straws, they were safe from parasites, but died from mold because the polymers didn’t let moisture escape.
IMAGE: An alfalfa leafcutting bee (Megachile rotundata) on an alfalfa flower. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture