The researchers found solitary bees in Argentina that made nests out of plastic bag-like materials.
In a great shame to humanity. According to the researchers, the plastic nest resulted in a lower survival rate.
The researchers established solitary wild bee “hotels” - structures with long, hollow tubes that bees can build for their young - in the spring and summer of 2017 and 2018. Typically, they will create their nests in the tubes, from mud, leaves, stone, petals, tree resin, and anything else they can remove.
In the case of one of the nests they found, the bees were collecting plastic. That nest, which was made up of three separate cells, was made of thin, light blue plastic, like the one used to make plastic bags, and a harder white plastic.
Compared to the other two nests the researchers examined, which were made of natural materials, this one had a lower success rate for the survival of the bees. One of the cells contained a dead larva, another appeared to have housed and was an adult that had left the nest, and the third was unfinished. Their findings are published in the journal Apidologie.
This is not the first time that bees have been observed making plastic nests, but it is the first time that they have been observed building houses with plastic.
In 2013, researchers found that bees collected polyurethane (foam used in furniture) and polyethylene plastics (used in plastic bags and bottles) to make nests, in combination with natural materials. But this is the first observed case of bees using plastic as the only building material.
Bees making nests out of plastic bags sound like an ecologically dystopian movie plot. But unlike finding plastics in our food, in our deepest oceans, and within wildlife, this find might not be so bad. It's still very bad, to be clear, but it also shows that they are resistant to humanity's pessimism, the researchers say.
"It could highlight the responsiveness of bees in the search for alternative materials for the construction of their nests in the face of human disturbance," the researchers wrote in the paper.
Perhaps the herbicides in nearby fields and foraging areas were too toxic for them to use, or the plastics offered protection against the elements that leaves and sticks could not. Either way, it's a jarring reminder that people are abusing nature with plastic waste, and that bees are really smart creatures.