The Fall Of The Honeybee

In the spring of 2008, millions of Europe’s honeybees died. Countries all over the EU reported devastating losses, but Germany was hit worst of all. There, it was so bad that the government had to set up containers along the road so beekeepers could dump their vacant hives.

Later that year, it was determined that the bees had died of mass poisoning by the pesticide clothianidin–part of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Phased in during the 1990s, neonics are most often used by farmers who need to control unwanted pests. They are coated on seeds, which then produce plants that are toxic to insects.

In theory, the pesticide is designed to attack the nervous system of crop-destroying bugs. The problem is, Neonics don’t just poison the bad insects–they’re toxic to almost anything that ingests them. According to Harvard professor Chensheng Lu, the poison can be directly linked to the deaths of bees all over the world.

In a global phenomenon typically known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), worker bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen and her offspring unprotected. Lu and others have repeatedly stated that it’s due to the use of these harmful chemicals, which muddle the bees’ sense of direction and interfere with their feeding habits.

Farmers say that banning the use of pesticides such as clothianidin is unfair–that there are dozens of factors (such as parasites and disease) which could be harming the bees. Either way, one thing remains clear: Something has to be done.

The Solution? A More Resilient Bee

So, what can be done about the pollination of crops that might costs farmers all over the world billions of dollars in losses? For many, the answer is to build a more resilient bee. Frankenbees, or genetically modified superbees, would be less susceptible to viruses, mites, and, yes, even pesticides.

In fact, scientists have already identified a key set of genes which are responsible for the bees’ response to several pathogens and viruses. In one German university, students have begun injecting bee embryos with a gene-manipulation solution, the main ingredient in a technique called Crispr-Cas9. The technology allows scientists to alter specimens on a genetic level, increasing desirable traits or eliminating the undesirable.

In 2014, the first “designer bee” was created.

Will It Work?

For bee enthusiasts around the world, the prospect of a superbee is horrifying. Most worry that these new, genetically engineered species will wipe out their smaller, conventional cousins. Gone will be the days of hobby beekeeping, as local strains are unable to compete with the disease-resistant Frankenmonsters.

Jay Evans, head of the bee research lab at the US Department of Agriculture, says designing a truly pesticide-resistant honeybee would “throw a lot of nature under the bus.” Others worry that the introduction of a novel bee species might create new allergy risks, or that the engineering of honeybees would end in the privatization of the sector.

For now, it’s not yet legal to release genetically engineered bees into the wild–but it is only a matter of time. Will it be the godsend farmers are hoping for? Or will it be the downfall of beekeeping as we know it?