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Diesel Fumes: Reduces Bees' Ability To Scent Flower Odors

First Posted: Oct 19, 2015 02:35 PM EDT

Diesel fumes have altered almost half of the common flower odors that bees use to find their food, according to a news release.

Toxic nitrous oxide (NOx) in diesel exhausts is affecting bees' ability to smell out flowers and of the eleven most common single compounds in floral odors, five have can be chemically altered by exposure to NOx gases from exhaust fumes, researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Reading found in a study.

"We don't think that air pollution from diesel vehicles is the main reason for this decline, but our latest work suggests that it may have a worse effect on the flower odors needed by bees than we initially thought," said Dr. Robbie Girling, the study's lead author from the University of Reading's Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (formerly of University of Southampton).

Diesel engines produce a poisonous pollutant, NOx, which is a hazard to both humans and animals. The presence of NOx in the air is reducing bees' sense of smell, which is vital for their survival, according to the researchers.  

"People rely on bees and pollinating insects for a large proportion of our food, yet humans have paid the bees back with habitat destruction, insecticides, climate change and air pollution. This work highlights that pollution from dirty vehicles is not only dangerous to people's health, but could also have an impact on our natural environment and the economy," Girling said.

In the U.S., nitrous oxide accounted for about five percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2013. Nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years before being removed by a sink or destroyed through chemical reactions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

With the excess amounts of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere, bees' chances of finding food are being reduced significantly.

"It is becoming clear that bees are at risk from a range of stresses. Our research highlights that a further stress could be the increasing amounts of vehicle emissions affecting air quality. Whilst it is unlikely that these emissions by themselves could be affecting bee populations, combined with the other stresses, it could be the tipping point," said Professor Guy Poppy, co-author of the study from Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton.

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