18 February 2021

The Guardian: “Invasion of the ‘frankenbees’: the danger of building a better bee”

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.

Beekeepers fear genetic engineering of honeybees will introduce patents and privatisation to one of the last bastions of agriculture that is collectively managed and owned by no one. Think about it, Haefeker told me, the one area Big Ag doesn’t yet control is pollination. And pollination is huge. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that pollinators help farmers grow crops worth up to $577bn (£437bn) annually.

Damage to the bee population, by harming a vital pollinator, is already threatening crops worldwide. Outside FAO’s headquarters in Rome, a neon billboard flashes in English, Italian and Arabic a series of urgent save-the-planet messages. Save the bees tops the list. If bees disappear, food crops and animal feeds, not to mention the raw materials for biofuels (from canola and palm oil), textiles (cotton) and medicines, will simply vanish from much of the planet. It has got so bad in some parts of China that humans already pollinate some crops by hand. In what feels like a riff on a Black Mirror episode, Harvard researchers are working on the RoboBee, a flying robotic pollinator that is half the size of a paperclip and weighs less than one-tenth of a gram. In March, Walmart filed a series of patents for its own tiny robotic pollinators.

Bernhard Warner

If the banana could be a relatively safe target for genetic engineering to protect the commercial variant from a deadly disease, bees are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The issues are far more complex than in the case of the banana, as highlighted above, so a solution based exclusively on gene editing would have to be equally complex, thus raising the prospects of unintended reactions. The risks involved are enormous, given how crucial honeybees are in pollination and agriculture. I do not think we can afford to play around with the food supply of the entire world…

A bee covered in pollen from a sunflower
A bee covered in pollen from a sunflower. Photograph: EPA

Fortunately measures are on the way to tackle the more likely cause of bee decline. Three neonicotinoids, a family of pesticides based on the chemical structure of nicotine that attack the central nervous system of insects, have been banned in the European Union, and France has gone further, banning all five substances. Meanwhile, bee populations have started to recover in some areas due to regenerative farming. So there a quite a lot of measures to introduce before resorting to something as drastic as gene modification.

Meanwhile, it is possible that humankind has even more extreme designs on bees. Earlier this month, Haefeker sent me a message pointing to something called Insect Allies, a $45m research project sponsored by Darpa, the US Department of Defense’s military research department. It proposes using insects to carry immune-boosting mutations designed to protect crops from drought, flooding, pathogens and bioweapons. In essence, the visiting insects would modify the plant’s genetic makeup. A group of academics from universities in Germany and France declared the programme’s existence alarming, saying it turns the insects themselves into bioweapons.

Darpa does not say what kind of insects it plans to use, but Haefeker did not like the sound of it. We need to keep an eye on this craziness, his text read, in case they want to use bees to transport their genetically modified viruses into crops.

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