The threat to honeybees presented by pesticides—specifically those with neonicotinoids—have become so well-known beyond the scientific community that even companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro have started the process of discontinuing their use permanently by certain dates and substituting those harmful products with safer alternatives. Given the rate of loss being around 45 percent of colonies per year, the efforts brought on by those who sell insecticides are likely a good sign in terms of fighting honeybee decline.
In this effort, one group of researchers has turned to an unlikely source to create options of safer pesticides for honeybees and other pollinators: the Australian funnel-web spider, one of the deadliest spiders on that continent and in the world. While one’s immediate response might be to recoil and run away (for fear of death by venom poisoning), the exact formula for the pesticide is made possible by “extracting specific peptides from the spider’s venom that actively kill harmful pests without affecting mammals or beneficial creatures like honeybees,” according to Vestaron Corp., the Michigan-based startup responsible for the new pesticide.
This spider’s venom, as with all venoms, contains millions of different peptide toxins that target certain pathways inside certain animals—and this is how it was made possible for Vestaron Corp. to develop its venom pesticide. The team was able to discover which peptides affect certain pests and isolate those peptides out to use in the formula. As reported on the company website, “Instead of fighting crop pests with harmful chemicals, our technology’s insect resistance derives from spider venom, which safely and effectively targets new metabolic pathways of pests. This venom is harmless to mammals (including humans), birds, fish, honeybees, and other beneficial insects.”
The team reportedly only needed one sample of venom to isolate the appropriate peptides, which they acquired from an Australian firm that milks—yes, milks—the spiders. With the right peptides isolated from the sample, they created a fermentation process allowing them to make a synthetic version of the venom, albeit one only harmful to plant-destructive insects. According to Vestaron chief executive John Sorenson, “We selected [peptides] without any mammalian effects, and we isolated those components, synthesized the genes for them, put them into yeast, and by fermentation, that produces our product for us,” thereby avoiding milking the specific peptides directly from the spiders, a stressful and harmful process for them.
As of most recent reports, the USDA has approved the venom pesticide for sale, meaning it could hit stores and online retailers soon, though a specific date remains unconfirmed. While it’s too early to tell if this new pesticide will help honeybee populations recover from losses in any way, it’s certainly worth a try, especially if it proves to be as effective as it is safe.