Could genetically modified crops be killing bees?


GM WATCH daily 
John McDonald, Special to The Chronicle 
San Francisco Chronicle, March 10 2007 
original article 
With reports coming in about a scourge affecting honeybees,  
researchers are launching a drive to find the cause of the  
destruction. The reasons for rapid colony collapse are not clear. Old  
diseases, parasites and new diseases are being looked at. 
Over the past 100 or so years, beekeepers have experienced colony  
losses from bacterial agents (foulbrood), mites (varroa and tracheal)  
and other parasites and pathogens. Beekeepers have dealt with these  
problems by using antibiotics, miticides or integrated pest management. 
While losses, particularly in overwintering, are a chronic condition,  
most beekeepers have learned to limit their losses by staying on top  
of new advice from entomologists. Unlike the more common problems,  
this new die-off has been virtually instantaneous throughout the  
country, not spreading at the slower pace of conventional classical  
As an interested beekeeper with some background in biology, I think  
it might be fruitful to investigate the role of genetically modified  
or transgenic farm crops. Although we are assured by nearly every bit  
of research that these manipulations of the crop genome are safe for  
both human consumption and the environment, looking more closely at  
what is involved here might raise questions about those assumptions. 
The most commonly transplanted segment of transgenic DNA involves  
genes from a well-known bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which  
has been used for decades by farmers and gardeners to control  
butterflies that damage cole crops such as cabbage and broccoli.  
Instead of the bacterial solution being sprayed on the plant, where  
it is eaten by the target insect, the genes that contain the  
insecticidal traits are incorporated into the genome of the farm  
crop. As the transformed plant grows, these Bt genes are replicated  
along with the plant genes so that each cell contains its own poison  
pill that kills the target insect. 
In the case of field corn, these insects are stem- and root-borers,  
lepidopterans (butterflies) that, in their larval stage, dine on some  
region of the corn plant, ingesting the bacterial gene, which  
eventually causes a crystallization effect in the guts of the borer  
larvae, thus killing them. 
What is not generally known to the public is that Bt variants are  
available that also target coleopterans (beetles) and dipterids  
(flies and mosquitoes). We are assured that the bee family,  
hymenopterans, is not affected. 
That there is Bt in beehives is not a question. Beekeepers spray Bt  
under hive lids sometimes to control the wax moth, an insect whose  
larval forms produce messy webs on honey. Canadian beekeepers have  
detected the disappearance of the wax moth in untreated hives,  
apparently a result of worker bees foraging in fields of transgenic  
canola plants. 
Bees forage heavily on corn flowers to obtain pollen for the rearing  
of young broods, and these pollen grains also contain the Bt gene of  
the parent plant, because they are present in the cells from which  
pollen forms. 
Is it not possible that while there is no lethal effect directly to  
the new bees, there might be some sublethal effect, such as immune  
suppression, acting as a slow killer? 
The planting of transgenic corn and soybean has increased  
exponentially, according to statistics from farm states. Tens of  
millions of acres of transgenic crops are allowing Bt genes to move  
off crop fields. 
A quick and easy way to get an approximate answer would be to make a  
comparison of colony losses of bees from regions where no genetically  
modified crops are grown, and to put test hives in areas where modern  
farming practices are so distant from the hives that the foraging  
worker bees would have no exposure to them. 
Given that nearly every bite of food that we eat has a pollinator,  
the seriousness of this emerging problem could dwarf all previous  
food disruptions. 
John McDonald is a beekeeper in Pennsylvania. He welcomes comments or  
questions about the bee problem at General  
comments to 
This article appeared on page F – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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