February 13, 2014
The Birds And The Bees – Recycling Plastic
Maybe one day we will all be part plastic. Maybe we already are. It’s a plastic world. The problems associated with plastic pollution are well known, but it is a problem that is not going to go away any time soon. I have written here before about this topic, but like most commentators, the focus was on the environmental impact, not on how the natural world might adapt to the plastic onslaught. New research has shown how bees have adapted to plastic in their world by making use of it, but before that, let’s look at other ways in which animals have incorporated plastic into their lives.
Many birds incorporate colored items in nests, most notably the bower bird with its elaborate constructions including plastic, bottle tops, glass, and so on which are all designed to attract a mate. It’s a bit like a teenager looking to wow a potential boy or girl friend by picking it out of the trashcan and hanging it in their car. Other birds use plastic in nests, often with fatal consequences but in one study, researchers found that black kites actually benefited from the use of bright (especially white) plastic in the nest as signals of potential dominance and territorial viability to other kites.
Hermit crabs, which use cast off shells from other species, have been known to use all kinds of man-made objects including plastic to make their new “shells” and in one study – Project Shelter – attempts have been made to address a “housing shortage” for hermit crabs by 3D printing plastic shells! Several species of octopus have also been found using debris to build their shelters. Some evidence has been found of microorganisms and fungi even consuming certain types of plastic.
However, there has been little evidence of insects using plastic. Now a study by Canadian researchers has shown that wild bees have begun to join the recycling effort by using plastic in their hives. Something similar was found back in the 1970s when the alfalfa leafcutter bee was found to be able to nest inside plastic drinking straws, but with unhappy consequences as, although the plastic protected them from the sting of predatory wasps, moisture and mould trapped by the straws led to higher mortality. The same species is now using plastic in the wild to build its nests that are small constructions built underground or in holes in buildings or trees. Like the Black Kite they seem to prefer white plastic and in some nests almost a quarter of the material was plastic, apparently from white bags. This particular species of bee plays an important role in pollinating crops like carrots, canola, alfalfa, and melons and was introduced into North America for that purpose back in the 1930s.
A second species – the native American Megachile campanulae – usually uses the resin or sap from trees to build nests but has now been found to use polyurethane sealants from buildings as well as natural materials.
The discovery that these bee species are adapting to their new part plastic environment by starting to use the material in this way could, the researchers say, “reflect ecologically adaptive traits necessary for survival in an increasingly human-dominated environment.”
I have long wondered how far this process might go and if one day life on earth will begin to evolve to incorporate plastic into their very bodies. Maybe this has already happened and we just haven’t found it yet.
Image Credit: Kues / Shutterstock