Honey bees cannot sense harmful concentrations of metal pollutants in food

Coline Monchanin, Maria Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, Loreleï Lecouvreur, Océane Boidard, Grégoire Méry, Jérôme Silvestre, Gaël Le Roux, David Baqué, Arnaud Elger, Andrew B. Barron, Mathieu Lihoreau, Jean Marc Devaud*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    3 Citations (Scopus)


    Whether animals can actively avoid food contaminated with harmful compounds through taste is key to assess their ecotoxicological risks. Here, we investigated the ability of honey bees to perceive and avoid food resources contaminated with common metal pollutants known to impair behaviour at low concentrations. In laboratory assays, bees did not discriminate food contaminated with arsenic, lead or zinc and ingested it readily, up to estimated doses of 929.1 μg g−1 As, 6.45 mg g−1 Pb and 72.46 mg g−1 Zn. A decrease of intake and appetitive responses indicating metal detection was only observed at the highest concentrations of lead (3.6 mM) and zinc (122.3 mM) through contact with the antennae and the proboscis. Electrophysiological analyses confirmed that only high concentrations of the three metals in a sucrose solution induced a consistently reduced neural response to sucrose in antennal taste receptors (As: >0.1 μM, Pb: >1 mM; Zn: >100 mM). Overall, cellular and behavioural responses did not provide evidence for specific mechanisms that would support selective detection of toxic metals (arsenic, lead), as compared to zinc, which has important biological functions. Our results thus show that honey bees can avoid metal pollutants in their food only at high concentrations unlikely to be encountered in the environment. By contrast, they appear to be unable to detect low, yet harmful, concentrations found in flowers. Metal pollution at trace levels is therefore a major threat for pollinators.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number134089
    Pages (from-to)1-9
    Number of pages9
    Early online date28 Feb 2022
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


    • Apis mellifera
    • Electrophysiology
    • Feeding behaviour
    • Learning
    • Metal pollution
    • Taste


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