The study by University of Illinois researchers is the first to identify the precise molecular mechanisms that allow the pollinating insects to resist potentially deadly chemicals used in their hives and also encountered elsewhere, a UI release said Wednesday.
The study found that enzymes in the honeybee gut combat contamination by an array of agricultural chemicals, many of which the bees themselves bring back to the hive in the form of contaminated pollen and nectar.
"There are agricultural pesticides everywhere," UI entomology Professor May Berenbaum said. "And [bees'] habit of foraging very broadly across a staggering diversity of plant species also tends to expose them to many different types of habitats, which may also have different types of chemical residues."
"It's abundantly clear that pesticides aren't really very good for any insect. So we figured it was about time somebody knew something about how pollinators process toxins."
The researchers said they identified at least three enzymes in the bees that can metabolize toxins.
Honeybees may be "pre-adapted" to detoxify pyrethroid-based pesticides, Berenbaum said, since Pyrethroids are similar in structure to naturally occurring defensive compounds, called pyrethrins, produced by some flowering plants that honeybees have likely had a long history of contact with.