Welcome to the Anthropocene, bees – we apologize in advance. For the very first time, scientists have documented a wild bee nest built entirely with plastic trash.
The plastic nest was discovered during the 2017-2018 summer season in the rural farmlands of San Juan, Argentina by a team led by Mariana Allasino of the National Agricultural Technology Institute. In the journal Apidologie, Allasino and team report that the nest was located at a site where they had laid dozens of trap nests, a kind “bee hotel” with holes in that bees can fill with any material they like, usually mud or plant material, to build brood cells.
Alongside two conventional nests lined with flower petals and mud, they noticed that a third nest was constructed solely out of two types of plastic, one of which appeared to be a blue plastic shopping bag. Scientists have previously documented the use of plastic by bees, however, this is the first instance where the nest is made solely out of plastic.
While the researchers were uncertain what species of bee lived here because the plastic nest was empty, the other two nests in the field were constructed by Megachile jenseni, a species closely related to the alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata). These are solitary bees that don’t build colonies or hives, but serve as highly efficient pollinators of crops. This skill means they have been introduced to environments across the world, although they were originally natives of Europe.
It isn’t clear where the plastic came from, nor why the bees opted for this material over organic materials, although the study notes that agricultural plastic waste in the area is prolific and often not disposed of properly. Plastics are becoming an increasing burden across the globe. Much of the conversation around plastic pollution centers on the marine environment, as this is where it can accumulate easier and its effects are most plainly seen. As this bee nest shows, however, the problem is also being felt in terrestrial ecosystems.
That said, the researchers are surprisingly positive about their discovery, arguing that it actually demonstrates the incredible versatility of bees to adapt to a changing environment that’s become dominated by human influence.
"The replacement of natural materials by plastic could appear in response to a limitation in the availability of vegetation in the fields, which could be directly linked to the use of herbicides," the researchers wrote in the study. "On the other hand, the use of plastic as the only resource for the construction of the nest could be associated with the preference of this material over natural ones. Some evidence shows that the use of synthetic materials in nesting could bring adaptive advantages."