Is Our Hundred-Year Car Obsession Driving Bees to Extinction?

New studies are showing that diesel fuel emissions play a role in the rising amount of honey bee deaths.

The Issue at Hand

Studies being done at the University of Southampton in the UK are showing that diesel fuel emissions play a role in the rising amount of honey bee deaths. Honey bees are one of the most valuable insects on the Earth as they pollinate around 400 of the world’s agricultural plants, roughly a third of what we eat, and one-sixth of the world’s flowering plants. Without the pollinating powers of the bees, none of the crops that they pollinate would exist either, and it would be near to impossible to sustain the growing world population. Alarmingly, we have been experiencing massive bee colony collapse throughout North America and Europe due to the failure of bees to return to their hive after going out to collect pollen. This has been contributed to environmental issues such as the use of pesticides as well as conventional agriculture and infections within the bee population. Now studies are showing a new suspect: emissions from vehicles that run on diesel fuel. Our hundred-year obsession with car culture has resulted in massive amounts of deaths of important pollinators, if nothing is done about it a drastic and negative change in the earth’s environment will take place.

The Science Behind the Deaths

There are certain pollutants in diesel fuel that, when released in the air, destroy chemicals in the smell of flowers that are key in making the scent recognizable to the bees. This makes it much more difficult for the bees to find food. Since honey bees are so selective with what flowers they want to forage from, if their sense of smell is disrupted they won’t be able to find the best flowers to get their food from. This means the worker bees also won’t be able to get the nutrients they need. They become weak and are not able to carry out their work and eventually will die. While there are some upsides to driving a diesel powered car, there are also downsides. Diesel engines are more expensive than non-diesel engines and have also played a role in air pollution. Though Volkswagen’s scandal of lying about emissions has played a role in the negative view of diesel cars, the popularity of diesel cars in America is still increasing. 10 years ago only 13% of American consumers expressed interest in buying a diesel car whereas today 40% expressed an interest. If this increase continues, it could spell bad news for the bees.

Related Articles

The BBC published an article written by Victoria Gill, detailing the research study that had been done at the University of Southampton. In this article, the author outlines how exactly diesel fuel is interfering with bees’ foraging patterns.  The main components of diesel exhaust that reacts with the chemical compounds in flower scents are nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, or NOx gases. Since honey bees use all the chemical compounds in flower scents, the NOx reaction with those chemical compounds means their foraging patterns are being negatively effected by the gases in the air. Though diesel fuel exhaust has some unique ways of making flower scents unrecognizable to bees, it’s not the only issue at hand. All air pollution plays a role in making every day acts of foraging for food a confusing and difficult task for honey bees. The Alternative Daily discusses how the scent of a flower can normally travel around 4,000 feet, but in areas with heavy smog or air pollution such as LA the scent can only travel around 1,000 feet. This is a 90% reduction and makes it very difficult for bees to find the flowers. Though the amount of diesel fueled vehicles in the US is quite small compared to the amount in Europe, an article published by Diesel Forum discusses why people should drive diesel fueled vehicles and creates a persuasive argument to bring more diesel cars into the United States. This article discusses how diesel cars can get better fuel economy, and often reduced emissions. Since the exhaust coming out of the tailpipes of these vehicles is now white and not black, it is considered “clean.” What is not discussed on this side of the argument, however, is what lasting and negative impact the emissions coming from these vehicles will have on the bees and on ourselves.

Student Author Bio: Sarah White is a senior undergraduate student majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Parks Recreation and Tourism at The University of Vermont

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, Ph.D., UVM Faculty Advisor

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Vermont

Sarah White is a senior undergraduate student majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Parks Recreation and Tourism at The University of Vermont.
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