Some floral scent chemicals bees "home in on" as they forage were masked or degraded by a specific group of chemicals found in diesel exhaust, known as mono-nitrogen oxides or NOx, the researchers said.
"We got into this, because we were aware of the impacts of airborne pollutants on human health, so it didn't seem so wild that there may be impacts that extended beyond human health," University of Southampton neuroscientist Tracey Newman, who was involved in the work, told the BBC.
The researchers concocted a mixture of the volatile chemicals that make up the scent of oilseed rape flowers, a bee favorite.
Then a lab-made mixture of air and exhaust at levels typically found near a busy road was mixed with the floral scent.
"We saw that there was loss of two of the components [of the floral odor mixture]," after they chemically reacted with the NOx component of the diesel exhaust, Newman said.
When the odor chemicals were degraded, bees in experiments bees were much less responsive to the floral scent, the researchers said. The findings suggest pollution should be reduced and air quality improved to safeguard pollinating insects as well as improve human health, Newman said.