Invasion of the ‘frankenbees’: the danger of building a better bee

Beekeepers are sounding the alarm about the latest developments in genetically modified pollinators. 

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he spring of 2008 was brutal for Europe’s honeybees. In late April and early May, during the corn-planting season, dismayed beekeepers in Germany’s upper Rhine valley looked on as whole colonies perished. Millions of bees died. France, the Netherlands and Italy reported big losses, but in Germany the incident took on the urgency of a national crisis. “It was a disaster,” recalled Walter Haefeker, German president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. “The government had to set up containers along the autobahn where beekeepers could dump their hives.”

The die-off forced a reckoning among European farmers. Hundreds of studies examined the safety of neonicotinoids, known as neonics, and their links to colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which worker bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen and her recent offspring unprotected, to starve. In 2013, the evidence led to a landmark European commission ruling, imposing a moratorium on clothianidin and two other major neonics – the world’s most popular pesticides. This April, Europe went a step further. The commission extended the ban on the trio of neonics to virtually everywhere outside greenhouses, citing evidence that by harming pollinating insects, neonics interfere with the pollination of crops to the value of €15bn a year. Environmentalists cheered the victory. Regulators beyond Europe plan to follow.

Honeybees originated in Eurasia roughly 35m years ago, and as long as they have had steady access to flowering plants, they have thrived. But in the modern world, bees face all kinds of dangers. Colony collapse is not a single malady, but rather an amalgamation of different challenges. Alongside the dangers of pesticides, diseases such as Israeli acute paralysis virus, gut parasites and invasive parasites such as the varroa mite can overwhelm the bees’ immune systems. Industrial agriculture imposes its own threats: a mania for monocultures has led to shrinking foraging habitats, while, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, bees employed in commercial pollination, in which hives are stacked high on trucks and driven around the country to pollinate almond trees and other crops, get highly stressed, which damages their resilience and eating habits.

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