(CN) – Pesticides are killing off bee populations across the globe, and it is a major concern for lawmakers and environmental advocates – and a major threat to the food chain.

Tracking how these pollinators are exposed to harmful chemicals can be difficult, but a study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology introduces a novel approach that could be used to track how harmful chemicals are picked up by bees and spread throughout their ecosystem.

The busy work of bees plays a vital role in pollinating plants, which, in turn, feed animals that are hunted by predators. The contributions from bees is vital, and their subtraction from the food chain equation would be disastrous. Pesticides can derail the pollinators’ productivity and eventually lead to their death.

According to a recent annual honeybee survey by the Bee Informed Partnership – a collaboration of research labs and universities – beekeepers lost nearly 40% of managed honey bee colonies over the past winter, one of the worst declines recorded in the 13-year history of the survey.

Pesticide use is largely to blame, according to environmental advocates. The European Union has banned all outdoor use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned several products with a similar chemical makeup.

Neonicotinoids, which acts like nicotine and can cause nerve damage in bees, is analyzed in the new study. The water-soluble pesticide is used to control insect populations and can be applied to the soil to give plants a chemical defense against insects, but it can cause bees to become addicted to the chemical.

A new probe developed by researchers from the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, tracks how neonics change over time in biological systems, such as plants.

The solid-phase microextraction probe uses a fiber coated with liquid or a solid to extract plant samples, which can be inserted through a needle and then recovered for later analysis. Researchers say it takes about 20 minutes in total to extract samples.

In theory, the probe could be used to monitor how neonic pesticides are taken back to beehives and how they impact other insects that play a vital role in pollinating plants.

Researchers say the probe will allow them to nail down when an insecticide is most potent when it is exposed to insects, whether in the bloom, the nectar of a plant or in the pollen.