In a huge embarrassment for humankind, scientists found a bee nest made out of plastic bags in Argentina. According to the researchers, the plastic nest resulted in a lower survival rate for the bees.
The researchers set out "hotels" for solitary wild bees—structures with long, hollow tubes that the bees can build nest in for their young—in the spring and summer of 2017 and 2018. Usually, these bees will create their nests in the tubes out of mud, leaves, stone, petals, tree resin, and whatever else they can scavenge.
In the case of one of the nests they found, the bees were scavenging plastic. That nest, which was comprised of three separate cells, was made of thin, light blue plastic, like the kind used to make plastic shopping bags, and a harder, white plastic.
Compared to the other two nests the researchers examined, which were made of natural materials, this one had a lower success rate for the bees' survival. One of the cells contained a dead larva, another seemed to have housed and adult that since left the nest, and the third was unfinished. Their findings are published in the journal Apidologie.
This isn't the first time bees have been observed making nests out of plastics, but it is the first time bees have been spotted building homes only with plastic.
In 2013, researchers found that bees were collecting polyurethane (foam used in furniture) and polyethylene plastics (used in plastic bags and bottles) to make nests, in combination with natural materials. But this is the first observed case of bees using plastic as their sole building material.
Bees making nests out of plastic bags sounds like an ecologically dystopian movie plot. But unlike finding plastics in our food, in our deepest oceans, and inside wildlife, this finding might not be all bad. It's still really bad, to be clear, but it also shows that the bees are resilient to humanity's dumbassery, the researchers say.
"It could highlight bees' response capacity in the search for alternative materials for the construction of their nests in the face of human disturbance," the researchers wrote in the paper.
Perhaps the herbicides in nearby fields and foraging areas were too toxic for the bees to use, or the plastics offered protection from the elements that leaves and sticks couldn't. Either way, it's a jarring reminder that people are abusing nature with plastic waste—and that bees are really smart creatures.