Inexpensive infrared lights could be used in beehives to combat the harmful effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, a new study says.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that two 15-minute bursts of infrared light were enough to reverse the effects of the neonicotinoid pesticide imacloprid on bumblebees. Bees that had been poisoned regained their ability to move and their survival rates improved significantly with the light treatment, the authors say.

The infrared light acts on the mitochondria – the energy powerhouse of the cell – which are damaged by neonicotinoids, study author Glen Jeffery of UCLs Institute of Ophthalmology told IBTimes UK. A molecule in the mitochondria called cytochrome c oxidase is particularly affected by infrared light of the wavelength used in the study – 670 nanometers.

The thing about impacloprid is that the poisoned bee basically cant move, says Jeffery. If it cant move it cant feed. Jeffery aimed to see whether it was possible to make the bees functional again when exposed to imacloprid.

The team poisoned some of the bees with imacloprid, treating some of them with infrared light and leaving others without. The consistency of the effects of the infrared light were startling, Jeffery says. To be honest I nearly fell off my chair. We repeated it time after time after time – and time after time it worked.

Flies, humans – and now bees

Jeffery had previously done tests on old fruit flies with infrared light, and found that their mobility improves when exposed to infrared light. However he was original working on the effects of infrared light in human eyes, specifically in those who suffer from macular degeneration – a progressive condition that ends in loss of sight.

All cells have got mitochondria supply the energy that cells generally need, Jeffery says. I was working on the hypothesis that mitochondria in these eyes were suffering, there wasnt enough energy.

The idea that bees might be suffering from a similar problem in their mitochondria was a stroke of luck, he says. It was a cycle ride home up the Holloway Road in a headwind and it was raining, and suddenly I remembered Id read something that day about bees and the fact that the cells get overstimulated [by neonicotinoids] and the mitochondria run down. I thought hang on, there might be a link here.

Jeffery shortly after ordered a beehive, complete with bees, to test the idea. Ive never been so frightened in my life – and this thing was being delivered by the Post Office, he says.

Save a hive for £15

The effects of the infrared light on the mitochondria appear to last as long as the animals receive the pulses of light regularly. It fits with the idea that if mitochondria decline, youre going to get systemic failure. And what the light does is get you over those problems. If you give it on a regular basis, certainly flies and mice remain perfectly happy for quite a period of time.

The infrared lights that Jeffery are cheap and can be bought online. Its desperately simple, he says. Weve looked at what its going to take to put these things in hives. Youre talking about putting in something in there that costs about £15-20.

Given the risk of the growing pollination problem and plummeting bee populations, Jeffery says that it would be crazy not to install the lights in hives. The impact in terms of what its going to do for pollination could be very significant because it costs very, very little.

He adds that bees that have not been exposed to imacloprid also benefited from the infrared light. They live longer. Its a win-win situation.

With these lights so far, weve been using them for about four years on mice, my relatives, my colleagues, flies – there isnt a downside, Jeffery says. There isnt a crash afterwards.