There’s So Much Plastic in the Environment That Bees Are Making Nests Out of It

Researchers in Argentina found the synthetic nest by chance.

Sean Gallup/Getty

This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last summer, scientists in South America were studying the impact agricultural practices have on the surrounding ecosystems, and specifically how natural areas and fields are pollinated as a result of their proximity to one another. In the midst of this analysis in San Juan, Argentina, the team of researchers made a totally unexpected discovery: a bee’s nest made completely from plastic.

San Juan is a region with a desert climate abutting the Andes that is nonetheless known for wine production, among other crops. Most growing operations there are family run, which provides a lot of data for those studying the relationships between human activity and nature. In this case, that means human-made materials finding their way into an unexpected place.

“The nest was found in a chicory field for seed production in San Juan, Argentina,” says Mariana Laura Allasino of the National Agricultural Technology Institute, who coauthored a report on the find in the journal Apidologie. The nest belonged to a bee from the family Megachilidae, which are solitary bees that often build nest cells from material they collect, such as soil, bits of leaves, and even animal fur. In this case, the nest cells were made of “light blue plastic, of shopping bag consistency,” and “white plastic, thicker than the previous one,” Allasino says.

“Due to our activities, human beings are contributing to the ecosystem’s degradation and biodiversity loss,” says Allasino, via email. “The most fascinating thing about this finding is that it suggests the adaptive flexibility that certain bee species would have in the face of changes in environmental conditions.” It’s almost a positive message. While we can’t tell yet if the plastic was harming the bee or its ability to reproduce, she says, it is a demonstration of just how adaptable nature can be.

Birds and other animals have long been known to incorporate pieces of plastic and other artificial materials into their nests, but it is quite rare to see among insects. In fact, the only other recorded case was when Canadian researchers discovered natural bee nests partially constructed with plastic (alongside natural materials) in 2013. The nest found by Allasino and her team is the first ever documented made entirely of plastic. “The replacement of natural materials by plastic could be due to a limitation in the availability of vegetation in the fields or an overabundance of waste, which could be directly related to the management of agricultural activity,” she says. “Plastic waste is something usual we can find in an agricultural field that comes from neighbors who throw waste in the fields or from the inputs of agricultural practices.”

The researchers in Argentina plan to analyze DNA from the dead larvae found in the plastic nest to confirm the exact species. (It’s not known whether the nest material had anything to do with the fate of the larvae.) “We will continue to set trap-nests for solitary bees to know the species that are present in the fields,” Allasino says, “and to increase the probability of finding another nest with the same characteristics as the one we already found.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate