Increased aggression and reduced aversive
learning in honey bees exposed to extremely
low frequency electromagnetic fields
*, Georgina Hollands
, Victoria C. Godley
, Suleiman M. Sharkh
Chris W. Jackson
, Philip L. Newland
1Biological Sciences, University of Southampton, Highfield Campus, Southampton, United Kingdom,
2Department of Entomology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, United States of America,
3Mechatronics, Mechanical Engineering, University of Southampton, Highfield Campus, Southampton,
Honey bees, Apis mellifera, are a globally significant pollinator species and are currently in
decline, with losses attributed to an array of interacting environmental stressors. Extremely
low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF EMFs) are a lesser-known abiotic environmental
factor that are emitted from a variety of anthropogenic sources, including power lines, and
have recently been shown to have a significant impact on the cognitive abilities and behav-
iour of honey bees. Here we have investigated the effects of field-realistic levels of ELF
EMFs on aversive learning and aggression levels, which are critical factors for bees to main-
tain colony strength. Bees were exposed for 17 h to 100 μT or 1000 μT ELF EMFs, or a
sham control. A sting extension response (SER) assay was conducted to determine the
effects of ELF EMFs on aversive learning, while an intruder assay was conducted to deter-
mine the effects of ELF EMFs on aggression levels. Exposure to both 100 μT and 1000 μT
ELF EMF reduced aversive learning performance by over 20%. Exposure to 100 μT ELF
EMFs also increased aggression scores by 60%, in response to intruder bees from foreign
hives. These results indicate that short-term exposure to ELF EMFs, at levels that could
be encountered in bee hives placed under power lines, reduced aversive learning and
increased aggression levels. These behavioural changes could have wider ecological impli-
cations in terms of the ability of bees to interact with, and respond appropriately to, threats
and negative environmental stimuli.
Over the last 30 years there has been a decline in the numbers of the economically and ecolog-
ically important honey bee [1,2]. Honey bee declines are part of a much larger global problem
of pollinator declines  with major causes attributed to a combination of interacting, and
mainly anthropogenically driven, environmental stressors including, habitat loss, pesticide
exposure, pathogens and parasites . Electromagnetic pollution is emerging as a lesser-
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 1 / 13
Citation: Shepherd S, Hollands G, Godley VC,
Sharkh SM, Jackson CW, Newland PL (2019)
Increased aggression and reduced aversive
learning in honey bees exposed to extremely low
frequency electromagnetic fields. PLoS ONE 14
(10): e0223614. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.
Editor: Adam G Dolezal, University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, UNITED STATES
Received: June 7, 2019
Accepted: September 24, 2019
Published: October 10, 2019
Copyright: ©2019 Shepherd et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
within the manuscript and its Supporting
Funding: SS was funded by a Mayflower
Studentship from the University of Southampton.
The funder had no role in study design, data
collection and analysis, decision to publish, or
preparation of the manuscript. Publication of this
article was funded in part by Purdue University
Libraries Open Access Publishing Fund.
known abiotic environmental factor that has the potential to affect insect biology and thus
may contribute to the environmental stress load that insects currently experience in global eco-
Extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF EMFs) are a specific type of non-ion-
ising electromagnetic radiation in the frequency range 3–300 Hz that are emitted from anthro-
pogenic devices. Pollution of the environment with ELF EMFs has increased dramatically in
the last century, with a major source for ELF EMFs being power transmission lines . ELF
EMF exposure has recently been associated with a variety of different effects on insects includ-
ing changes in developmental biology [8,9], locomotor behaviour [6,10], molecular biology
[11,12], and immune response .
Honey bees may be particularly at risk to ELF EMF pollution in the environment. At
ground level, ELF EMF intensity under power transmission lines can reach 100 μT, while fly-
ing insects can be exposed to much higher levels close to conductors where ELF EMF levels
can be over 1,000 μT . Some studies suggest exposure to ELF EMFs from power lines may
be stressful for honey bees [14,15] whilst it has also been reported  that bees hived under
power lines will readily abscond. Moreover, Greenberg et al.  found that bee hives exposed
to power lines had increased motor activity, abnormal propolisation, reduced weight gain of
hives, queen loss, impaired production of queen cells, decreased sealed brood and poor winter
survival, leading to a federal US precaution to not store hives under power lines . While
these studies show no direct experimental evidence for ELF EMF effects on bees, they at least
suggest that ELF EMF exposure may be a factor that contributed to, or caused, the stress
responses of the bees observed in these studies.
In their environment bees are exposed to a variety of negative environmental stimuli and
cues, which are also critical for bees to perceive and respond to, such as weather, toxins ,
or biotic threats such as colony diseases and parasites [20,21], invading robber bees from
other colonies  and predators [21–23]. How colonies respond to these environmental
stresses is critical to their long-term fitness. Bees must be able to detect these negative stimuli
, learn that they are associated with a negative effect , enact an appropriate aggressive
response , and even communicate this information to other individuals . For example,
guard bees when confronted with a threat (e.g. predator or intruder) may enter the hive to
release alarm pheromone by extruding their sting, raising their abdomen and fanning their
Surprisingly little is known about aversive learning, and how it is affected by environmental
stimuli, despite its importance in maintaining colony fitness. A sting extension response (SER)
assay [26,27] has been developed to study aversive learning in bees in which a conditioned
stimulus (CS) (often olfactory) is applied and associated with an unconditioned stimulus (US)
of a weak electric shock. Over repeated conditioning trials bees learn to associate the negative
US with the CS. The SER assay can therefore provide valuable information in a controlled
experimental environment of how potential stressors such as ELF EMFs can affect bees .
For example, SER has been used to investigate the impacts of the neonicotinoid insecticide
imidacloprid on honey bee aversive learning . In addition, intruder assays have been used
to assess aggressive responses of honey bees, including to conspecifics [30–33]. Environmental
stresses which could affect the ability of bees to learn about negative environmental cues, or
respond appropriately to environmental cues, could therefore be detrimental to honey bee col-
Here we have used both the SER and intruder assays to determine whether short term expo-
sure to ELF EMFs, at levels equivalent to those found at ground level under high-voltage trans-
mission power lines, can affect aversive learning and aggression in honey bees. We have
utilised these well-established assays in the laboratory where the levels of EMF exposure of
Extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields increase aggression and reduce aversive learning in honey bees
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 2 / 13
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
individual bees can be precisely controlled, and under consistent conditions free from stray
fields and other confounding stimuli.
Materials and methods
Electromagnetic fields were generated with a custom-made Helmholtz coil  which produced
homogenous 50 Hz sinusoidal AC electromagnetic fields with a range of field strength from
~10 μT—10,000 μT. Field strength (magnetic flux density) was measured with a Model GM2
Magnetometer (Alphalab Inc., USA). For control exposures no current was passed through the
coil system. For SER experiments control, 100 μT and 1000 μT 50 Hz EMF treatments were
applied, while for intruder assay experiments control and 100 μT ELF EMF treatments were
Honey bees were kept at the University of Southampton Highfield Campus apiary (50˚ 56’
10’’N, 1˚ 23’ 39’’W) and experiments conducted from June-August, 2017. Foragers were iden-
tified by the pollen in their corbiculae and transported to an insectary in the Institute for Life
Sciences at the University of Southampton, where they were immobilized on wet ice and trans-
ferred into appropriate containers for SER and Intruder Assay experiments.
Sting extension response assay
Bees were collected individually from 3 hives and harnessed in custom made SER cradles cut
from Perspex, with a similar design to Vergoz et al. . Bees were placed ventral side upwards
in a metal fork of the cradle, such that the fork held the bee by the thorax, with prongs in place
around the petiole and neck of the bee (Fig 1A). This fork also served as an electrode for an
Fig 1. Sting extension response protocol. A) Harnessing of a bee in an SER cradle for EMF exposure. Tesa
applied around the thorax to hold the bee between the fork prongs. B) Aversive sting extension response to the CS in
SER conditioning trials. The inset shows the extended stinger in more detail. C) SER Timetable showing a
representation of an individual conditioning trial. The bee was acclimatised to the arena for 20 s, before CS (linalool)
application. After 6 s of CS, CS and US (12 V shock) were paired for 2 s, after which both CS and US were switched off.
A further 32 s of clear airflow was allowed for odour to be removed from the arena.
Extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields increase aggression and reduce aversive learning in honey bees
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 3 / 13
aversive shock stimulus during the SER assay (Fig 1B). Tesa
tape was then placed laterally
across the cradle and between the prongs of the fork across the thorax to restrain the bee in the
cradle. Bees were then fed to satiation with a 50% w/v sucrose solution and were then ready for
overnight treatment (17 h).
An experimental arena (W ×D×H = 60 ×45 ×55 cm) was used with an odour delivery
system at one end and an extraction fan at the other to remove any odours from the arena. The
odour delivery system allowed a constant airflow to be supplied to the arena. A clear airflow,
and the CS, were delivered in separate channels in the multichannel system which joined via
Teflon tubing before it discharged into the arena at a single release point. Electronic valves
allowed the airflow to switch between CS and clear airflow channels. The CS used was 8 μl of
97% linalool (Sigma-Aldrich, UK) which was pipetted onto filter paper to be placed in the CS
delivery channel. The channel with clear air was always open when no odour was delivered. To
deliver the CS, airflow was switched from the clear air channel to the odour delivery channel
such that bees were supplied with a constant airflow, and would associate any stimulus with
the odour and not a change in airflow.
For SER experiments bees were exposed to control, 100 μT or 1000 μT EMFs for 17 h and
following exposure SER trials began immediately. This treatment was chosen to represent a
field-realistic scenario where bee hives are placed under transmission and where bees have
been reported to show negative responses . 357 bees completed the SER assay. An SER cra-
dle containing a harnessed bee was placed into the experimental arena of the odour delivery
system. Bees were exposed to a clear airflow for 20 s (Fig 1C). During this time the SER cradle
was attached to a DC power-supply with a 12 V output. The airflow was then switched from
clean air to linalool airflow, representing the CS. The CS lasted 8 s. For the final 2 s of the CS
the bee was shocked at 12 V from the DC power supply, representing the unconditioned stim-
ulus (US) thus pairing US and CS for 2 s. The US and CS finished at the same time (28 s into
the trial). The clear airflow was then left on for 32 s with the bee in the arena to reinforce the
association of the CS with the US and to allow the extractor to remove linalool from the arena.
The length of one complete conditioning trial for a bee was 60 s (Fig 1C).
Conditioning trials were repeated 5 times for each individual bee with an inter-trial interval
of 10 min. If a bee did not respond during linalool delivery or electric shock then a ‘failed
response’ was recorded. Bees that failed to respond more than once in conditioning trials
(n = 16, 4.5% of 357) were excluded from analyses. No bees exhibited a pre-learned aversive
response to linalool in the first conditioning trial, and therefore no bees had to be excluded
from analysis for this reason. After all exclusions were made, 341 bees remained that com-
pleted the SER assay for inclusion in statistical analyses (S1 Table).
If a bee responded only after the shock stimulus then a non-conditioned sting extension
response was recorded (i.e. the bee responded to US but not CS). As in previous aversive learn-
ing studies responses to the conditioned stimulus have been described only when a bee extends
its sting during the CS application, and are defined as a ‘sting extension response’ (Fig 1A and
1B). The proportions of conditioned sting extension responses over 5 trials were analysed to
assess the effects of short-term ELF EMF exposure on aversive learning in honey bees.
This aversive learning approach therefore measures acquisition and short-term retention of
information, and thus has comparability with the results of the intruder assay where bees
encounter a new individual from a foreign hive.
Bees were collected from 5 different hives in groups of 20 bees from the same hive of origin.
Each group of 20 was split into 2 paired cohorts of 10 (S2 Table), and stored in separate petri
Extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields increase aggression and reduce aversive learning in honey bees
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 4 / 13
dishes fitted with 50% w/v sucrose feeders. For each pair of 10-bee cohorts (from the same
hive of origin) 1 cohort was exposed to a 100 μT ELF EMF and the other exposed to control
conditions (both at 22 ±1˚C) for 17 h overnight. The intruder assay was conducted the next
The sample period for the intruder assay began when a forager bee from a 6
ent) hive was introduced into each petri dish. Focal sampling of the ‘intruder’ bee was con-
ducted continuously for 10 min to assess the behaviour of recipient bees towards the intruder.
Behaviours were categorized on an aggressive severity index adapted from Richard et al. 
(Table 1) and the aggressive severity indices summed for a full 10 min sample period to give an
overall aggression score for that sample. In total 60 intruder assay samples were conducted
(n = 30 per treatment, with 6 assays/treatment/hive).
Data were analysed in SPSS (v.24, IBM SPSS Inc.) and Graphpad Prism (v.7, Graph Pad Soft-
ware Inc.). Where appropriate, homogeneity of variance and normality assumptions were
tested. For all models assessing the effects of treatments on binomial SER data, binomial error
structure and logit link function were used, and where appropriate pairwise contrasts with
Bonferroni adjusted significance were used in post-hoc analyses.
To determine whether ELF EMF exposure or ‘hive or origin’ affected the initial aversive
responsiveness of bees a generalized linear model (GLM) with ‘EMF treatment’ and ‘hive of
origin’ as interacting factors was used. To analyse the effect of ELF EMF exposure on sting
extension responses, a generalized mixed effect model (GLMM) was used with ‘EMF treat-
ment’, ‘hive of origin’, and ‘conditioning trial’ as interacting factors. For GLMMs trial 1 was
not included in analyses (i.e. trials 2–5 were used), as learning cannot occur in the first trial.
For intruder assay analysis, aggression scores were totalled from each trial and data log
transformed to satisfy normality assumptions for parametric statistical analyses. A two-way
Repeated Measures ANOVA was conducted to determine the effects of ‘EMF’, and ‘Hive of
Origin’ on log-transformed aggression score data, with data paired by their collection cohort.
Data plotted in aggression score graphs is back-transformed.
Sting extension response
ELF EMFs do not reduce the ability of bees to respond to aversive stimuli. To deter-
mine whether short-term exposure to EMF (control, 100 μT, or 1000 μT) affected the ability of
bees to respond with an aversive extension of the sting, the proportions of bees which did not
Table 1. Aggressive severity behavioural index used in the intruder assay adapted from Richard et al. .
Behaviour Definition Aggressive Severity
Aggressive antennation Antennation directed towards the intruder or touching the
intruder with antennae
Stalking Follows and moves towards intruder for more than 5 seconds 1
Crawl over Moves directly on top of the intruder 1
Antennation directly towards the intruder with mandibles
Biting Uses mandibles to grasp the intruder 3
Abdomen flexion The abdomen is flexed but the stinger is not extruded 4
Stinging attempts The stinger is visibly extruded towards the intruder 5
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 5 / 13
fail to respond to the US (i.e. non-learned sting extension to an aversive stimulus) between
each treatment were compared. After 17 h control exposure 95.0% of bees (n = 119) exhibited
aversive responses (Fig 2), whereas 96.6% (n = 118) responded following exposure to 100 μT
and 95.0% (n = 120) responded following exposure to 1000 μT EMFs. Thus, the initial aversive
responsiveness of honey bees was not affected by any interaction between the ELF EMF ‘treat-
ment’ or the honey bee ‘hive of origin’ (GLM, χ
<0.001, d.f. = 4, P >0.99), nor were there
any main effects of ‘treatment’ (GLM, χ
<0.001, d.f. = 2, P >0.99) or ‘hive of origin’ (GLM,
<0.001, d.f. = 2, P >0.99).
ELF EMFs reduce learning performance of the sting extension response. For control
bees, and those exposed to 100 μT and 1000 μT ELF EMFs, the proportion of bees exhibiting a
sting extension response increased with each conditioning trial (GLMM, F
P<0.0001). For bees maintained under control conditions 29% showed SER after trial 3 while
50% showed SER after conditioning trial 5 (Fig 3). By contrast, after bees were exposed to
100 μT ELF EMFs only 12% of bees showed SER after trial 3 and 32% after trial 5. Following
exposure to 1000 μT ELF EMFs 19% showed an SER after trial 3 and 27% after trial 5. EMF
treatments were found to significantly reduce the proportions of SER in honey bees (GLMM,
= 15.01, P <0.0001). A greater proportion of control exposed bees exhibited SER than
Fig 2. Aversive responses of honey bees in the SER assay. The effect of ELF EMF treatment on the proportion of
aversive responsiveness to 12 V electric shock aversive stimuli. Exact proportions are plotted. Results show that ELF
EMFs had no effect on the aversive responses of bees to electrical stimulation.
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 6 / 13
both 1000 μT (Pairwise comparison, Bonferroni adjusted P <0.001) and 100 μT (Pairwise
comparison, Bonferroni adjusted P = 0.001) exposed bees. There was no ‘treatment’ �‘trial’
interaction (GLMM, F
= 0.82, P = 0.56).
In this analysis of the effects of ELF EMF exposure on sting extension responses, hive
of origin was removed as a factor to improve model fit as it was found to have no effect on the
proportion of SER to the CS (GLMM, F
= 0.17, P = 0.84), nor any interaction with ‘treat-
ment’ (GLMM, F
= 1.38, P = 0.24) ‘conditioning trial’ (GLMM, F
= 0.24, P = 0.96) or
three-way interaction (GLMM, F
= 0.33, P = 0.99).
Bees exposed to 100 μT ELF EMF exhibited greater aggressive behaviour to introduced bees,
than bees not exposed to ELF EMFs (Fig 4). Bee cohorts which received a control treatment
Fig 3. Effects of ELF EMFs on aversive learning in honey bees. Effect of short-term ELF EMF exposure on the
proportion of aversive responses to the conditioned stimulus (linalool) for each of the trials. For each treatment the
proportion of bees showing a learned response increased. The exact proportion of responses is plotted.
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 7 / 13
displayed an aggression score of 12.87 ±1.69 (mean ±SEM) whereas bee cohorts exposed to
100 μT EMF exhibited a mean aggression score of 20.70 ±2.14 (mean ±SEM, Standard Error
of the Mean). EMF exposure significantly increased the average aggression scores across bees
from all hives (F
= 11.42, P = 0.0024). There was no impact of Hive (F
= 0.65, P = 0.63)
or any Hive�EMF interaction effect (F
= 0.75, P = 0.56) on aggression score. This indicates
Fig 4. The effect of ELF EMFs on honey bee aggression levels. Exposure to a 100 μT ELF EMF significantly increased
the Aggression Score. Mean ±SEM are shown. Statistical analyses were conducted on log-transformed data. Data
plotted are reverse log-transformed from data used in statistical analysis.
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 8 / 13
that short-term ELF EMF exposure, at levels that can be encountered at ground level or in
proximity to a high voltage transmission power lines, led to an increase in aggressive behaviour
of bees directed towards conspecifics.
Short-term exposure to 50 Hz ELF EMFs reduced aversive learning performance and
increased aggression at levels as low as 100 μT. This directly shows, for the first time, that
short-term ELF EMF exposure at levels which can be encountered at ground level under high-
voltage transmission power lines can affect honey bees, in terms of both their conditioning to
negative stimuli, and the intensity of their aggressive behaviour.
In locusts ELF EMFs have been shown to affect neural circuits controlling limb movement
and muscular force . During the stinging response in honey bees the protraction of the tip
of the abdomen, and the alternate sliding of barbed lancets of the stinging apparatus, are coor-
dinated by four large abdominal muscles [34–36] whose activity are regulated by neural cir-
cuits in the terminal abdominal ganglion . Given that a sting extension response was
evoked by the US in over 95% of trials, it is unlikely that the effects on aversive learning were
due to the effects of EMF at the neuromuscular level. Similarly, the effects of EMF were not
due to changes in the sting extension motor pattern as bees could still extend their abdomens
to electric shocks. Instead ELF-EMF induced reductions in SER performance are solely down
to a reduced ability to learn the aversive stimuli, and not the motor pattern involved in
responding to the stimuli.
The mechanisms underlying the effects of ELF EMFs on honey bee aversive learning and
aggression may be diverse. While the neural pathways underlying appetitive learning in the
honey bee brain are well characterised [37,38], less is known of the neural architecture under-
lying aversive learning. The biogenic amines dopamine and octopamine have critical roles in
associative learning in honey bees . Vergoz et al.  for example, found that aversive
learning is impaired after the injection of dopaminergic antagonists, and Jarriault et al. 
found that dopamine was released in mushroom bodies in the honey bee brain after electric
shock stimulation of the abdomen. These findings suggest that dopamine may have a key role
in memory formation in honey bee aversive learning. Furthermore, the honey bee alarm pher-
omone has been shown to increase levels of the biogenic amines serotonin and dopamine,
with increases in these amine levels being associated with increased likelihood of a bee to sting
. Some studies investigating the effects of EMF on invertebrates have suggested that
increased biogenic amine levels lead to increases in behavioural activity [42,43]. While no
studies have yet analysed changes in dopamine levels following ELF EMF exposure, these pre-
vious studies suggest that biogenic amine levels may be a potential area to investigate to eluci-
date the underlying mechanisms of ELF EMF induced changes in insect behaviour. Moreover,
ELF EMFs have been shown to have effects on neuronal signalling in insects , and therefore
there is the potential for ELF EMF induced effects on dopaminergic neurons or other neural
circuits which are involved in aversive learning pathways. ELF EMF induced changes in behav-
iour could also be underpinned by molecular changes such as gene expression. For example
short-term ELF EMF exposure has been shown to increase heat-shock protein expression in
locusts  and Drosophila .
The ecological implications of these effects are diverse. On the one hand the reduced ability
to learn new negative stimuli could lead to an increased latency of honey bee colonies to
respond to novel threats. Maliszewska et al.  found that short-term exposure of American
cockroaches to 7,000 μT ELF EMFs increased the latency of responses to a negative heat stimu-
lus. The increase in latency could clearly be detrimental to individuals in the ability to avoid
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 9 / 13
harmful environmental stimuli. On the other hand, we found that bees exposed to ELF EMFs
showed increased aggression levels. Rittschof et al.  found that increased levels of aggres-
sion in honey bees are associated with greater resilience to environmental stresses and to
immune challenge. However, direct short-term ELF EMF exposure at 2,000 μT in Lepidop-
teran larvae has been associated with changes in immune response parameters such as
increased apoptotic-like hemocytes, reduced hemolyph total protein and reduced hemocyte
cell count, which could suggest short-term ELF EMF exposures might lead to reduced resil-
ience to immune challenge . It is not known if ELF EMFs affect immune response in
honey bees at field-realistic ELF EMF intensities, lower than those that have been studied with
Lepidoptera, and thus it is not known if ELF EMF exposure would confer greater resilience to
immune challenge alongside increased aggression levels in bees. In addition, in the environ-
ment if a bee perceives a negative stimulus a sting response often results in sting autonomy,
with a rupture of the abdomen that causes the eventual death of the bee [44,45]. Less aggres-
sive responses to negative stimuli such as aggressive buzzing and flight bombardment can be
successful methods of warding off threats in a manner that is less detrimental to a colony in
terms of bee loss [25,45]. The effects of environmental stressors and the consequences of
increased aggression on this aversive decision making processes (other than increased sting
autonomy) are not-known.
While it is unclear what the ecological consequences of increased aggression may be for
bees exposed to ELF EMFs, the implications of reduced aversive learning performance are
more distinct. It is imperative that honeybees are able to perceive, learn, and avoid threats in
the environment [28,39]. Reductions in the ability to learn about negative stimuli could have
implications for the abilities of bees to deal with predatory/invader threats [20,22], detecting/
avoiding deleterious stimuli  and responding to negative stimuli that require action e.g.
attacking/removing diseased individuals from the hive , all of which could have detrimen-
tal effects on bee colonies. Although it is not yet known how bees will actually respond in the
field, it is clear that the reduction in aversive learning seen here with short-term 100 μT expo-
sures could be detrimental to honeybees on an ecological level. A number of studies have
described bee colonies failing that are hived under high-voltage transmission power lines,
where EMF levels can reach 100 μT [14–17]. There is the possibility that with hives located
under power lines, the long-term chronic exposure to ELF EMFs could continually reduce
cognitive abilities both with regards to aversive and appetitive learning, potentially leading to
some of the negative effects found in these studies.
Reductions in learning could be detrimental to individual and colony survivability. There
are large potential ecological consequences for reduced ability to learn about aversive and
appetitive stimuli for bees. Future studies should focus on whether there are ecological effects
of ELF EMF exposure, with direct measurements of chronic EMF exposure under power lines,
as well as determining what physiological/molecular processes may be affected by this kind of
exposure. These effects may not be confined to managed honey bees as there may be much
wider implications for wild bees and even other pollinators that require power line strips for
critical habitat refuge [46–50]. The underlying mechanisms, as well as the potential ecological
implications of ELF EMF pollution in the field must be further investigated to determine the
effects of ELF EMF pollution on insect biology and ecology, including crucial pollination eco-
S1 Table. The number of bees in SER analyses (after exclusions) for each hive and treatment.
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223614 October 10, 2019 10 / 13
S2 Table. The number of bees in intruder assay analyses for each hive and treatment.
S1 Dataset. Datasets for A) SER data B) Aggression data.
Conceptualization: Sebastian Shepherd, Suleiman M. Sharkh, Chris W. Jackson, Philip L.
Formal analysis: Sebastian Shepherd.
Investigation: Sebastian Shepherd, Georgina Hollands, Victoria C. Godley.
Methodology: Sebastian Shepherd, Georgina Hollands, Victoria C. Godley, Chris W. Jackson,
Philip L. Newland.
Resources: Suleiman M. Sharkh.
Supervision: Chris W. Jackson, Philip L. Newland.
Writing – original draft: Sebastian Shepherd, Philip L. Newland.
Writing – review & editing: Sebastian Shepherd, Georgina Hollands, Victoria C. Godley,
Suleiman M. Sharkh, Philip L. Newland.
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