Popular herbicide weakens bumblebees’ colour vision

Researchers at the Universities of Turku and Oulu, Finland, found out how Roundup, a herbicide containing glyphosate, affects the learning and memory of bumblebees. Already a small dose affected their ability to learn and memorise connections between colours and taste. The weakened fine colour vision can severely impair bumblebees’ foraging and nesting success.
Kimalainen lentää punaiselle testipisteelle.
Bumblebee not exposed to glyphosate-based herbicide learns to find rewarding and aversive ‘flowers’ based on their color. Red ‘flowers’ contain sucrose while the turquoise ‘flower’ next to it has bad-tasting quinine. Image Kari Saikkonen.

In the study, bumblebees were exposed to an acute dose of herbicide that pollinating bumblebees might be exposed to in a sprayed field during the day. After the exposure, the bumblebees' learning and memory were tested in a 10-colour discrimination task, in which the bumblebees learned to associate five specific colours with a rewarding sugar solution and another five colours with an aversive quinine solution.

Control bumblebees learned to distinguish colours associated with sweet sugar water from colours associated with a bad tasting compound and remembered what they learned after three days. Bumblebees exposed to the herbicide learned significantly less and forgot almost everything they had learned within a few days.

The researchers also found that the herbicide treatment did not affect bumblebees' performance in an easier two-color discrimination task or a 10-odor discrimination task. The results suggest that while exposure to Roundup does not make bumblebees completely colour or smell blind, it does impair their fine colour vision.

We focused on the cognitive traits of the bees because these traits determine the successful foraging and social behavior of social insects and therefore their fitness. I am really worried. Even one very small acute dose had a harmful effect on the bumblebees, says researcher, Associate Professor Marjo Helander from the University of Turku, Finland.

"The result is even more worrying when you take into account how much glyphosate-containing herbicides are used globally," states Helander.

"The results are alarming considering the importance of colour vision for bumblebees. Even small disturbances in colour vision can be catastrophic in terms of the foraging and nesting success," says docent Olli Loukola from the University of Oulu.

The study was published on October 22, 2022, in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The research publication: Helander, Lehtonen, Saikkonen, Despains, Nyckees, Antinoja, Solvi & Loukola (2022). Field-realistic acute exposure to glyphosate-based herbicide impairs fine-color discrimination in bumblebees. Science of the Total Environment. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159298.

Last updated: 13.10.2022