More GM Fun, Now with Bees!Posted: February 7, 2011
I recently commented that I thought GM crops had more to do with colony collapse disorder in the European Honey Bee than is normally suspected. I want to expand on that comment. But first, we need to go over colony collapse disorder.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) first appeared in North America in 2005/2006. It has also been reported from Europe and from Taiwan in 2007. It is characterized by the disappearance of the worker bees in a typical honey bee colony, leaving the baby bees to die a slow death. Once the workers are gone, the colony collapses. This could be a good lesson for conservatives, come to think of it.
The causes are unknown at this point. It seems that colonies collapse from a variety of reasons; diseases, pesticides, viruses, pathogens and parasites and cell phones have all been implicated.
The reason CCD is important is that honey bees pollinate a lot of our crops. Now, European honey bees are not native to North America, and there are native pollinators that do well here. But they don’t pollinate with the vigor and fecundity of the honey bee. Modern agricultural honey bees are managed something like livestock, and their colonies are moved around the agricultural areas of the country to provide pollination during the specific times that crops need their services. Almonds, for example, are entirely pollinated by bees. Oranges, peaches, cotton, blueberries, corn and other crops are also partly or almost completely pollinated by the sturdy little workers. The movement of the bee hives, of course, stresses the colony but normally the colonies survive such stress. The advent of CCD has changed this.
So what causes CCD? The Varroa mite was implicated at first. This is a tiny mite that lives off the bees and carries viruses which can be fatal to the bees. It’s very possible that the viruses have something to do with CCD but there do not seem to be more mites in colonies experiencing CCD than those that have not experienced it.
It was suspected that the radio signals from cell phones might be interfering with the bees’ ability to rehome. After the bees are confused by the signals, they die away from the colony, or so the theory goes. This theory does not have much real scientific support as the research behind it has been discredited, although it was popular for a while. Also, remember, crops are grown in rural areas. There is poor cell coverage in rural areas. Just sayin’.
New studies are pointing to a combination of a virus and a fungus as complicent in CCD.
One group of diseases, the invertebrate iridescent viruses [IIV], were found to be present in 100 per cent of cases (of CCD), but also in some strong colonies. A high correlation was found between Nosema and IIV in collapsed colonies, but finding Nosema alone was not found reliably to predict collapse.
It should be cautioned that this is just one study, and that other studies have implicated a wider range of causes.
For instance, pesticides which are poured onto seeds have been the cause of honeybee deaths in France. Another pesticide which is sprayed on plants (and hence not a GM problem but still implicated in CCD), Sevin, is a nerve poison. It can be found in the pollen of the sprayed plants, and taken back to the colony by worker bees to slowly poison the colony. And imagine, pollen gets into honey and we eat the honey… Just sayin’.
GM plants have not received a lot of attention in the CCD problem, but this is not because they are not suspected by scientists. I think it has more to do with economics, who pays for the studies and who would benefit most if GM were not implicated in CCD than any lack of correlations between GM and CCD. Bt is a bacteria which causes stomach aches, and finally death, in caterpillars. Bt is a very useful component of the organic growers’ arsenal. It can be sprayed upon plants like broccoli and corn, which can suffer serious loss to caterpillars, and the caterpillars, and only the caterpillars, will eat it as they eat the plant, and die. When they die, the bacteria dies and the cycle is finished.
However, if you engineer a plant, a seed, to include the Bt bacteria genes (the primary gene is a protein called Cry1Ab), then anything that eats any part of that plant, including nectar and pollen, will ingest those genes. Eventually, due to overexposure, some pests will learn to live with Bt ingested in this way and Bt will cease to be useful for organic farmers. Many other pests will die before that happens, and beneficial insects, which eat the same plants, will also die. Studies that have looked at bees and GM crops show that the bees’ intestines are damaged after ingesting bt pollen and nectar. There are Bt variants that infect bees and other pollinators. And Bt is directly sprayed in hives to keep down hive moths. Strangely enough, Canadian bee keepers have found a reduction in moths even when Bt is not sprayed in their hives, if those bees are foraging on GM crops. A beekeeper did a study by placing clean colonies in farmland with GM crops and a forest with no such crops. The farmland bees barely made enough honey to survive, the forest bees made a lot of honey.
A study in Mexico shows that bees exposed to Cry1Ab do not directly die, however their eating behavior changes. They spend longer eating nectar and digesting it, and spend less time foraging for pollen. The Cry1Ab also affects the bees’ learning abilities. All of this means that bees will have a harder time getting enough food for the colony.
It seems as though whatever is causing CCD, and I believe it is a number of factors, the mechanisms are similar. The bees are weakened, their immune systems are badly affected, and they are then killed off by diseases, viruses and fungi. I believe GM crops contribute to the weakening of the bees immune system. Bees exposed to and eating the pollen of GM corn are not affected, but add a disease or an intestinal parasite that the bees can usually resist, and the colonies collapse.
In fact a study has shown that the Bt protein has leapt the species barrier and the gene used to create Bt rape seed (a kind of mustard or cabbage that produces oil, e.g. canola) has been found in the honeybees’ digestive tracts. Ok, so this happens to bees. But we eat this stuff too, all unknowingly, in corn, in canola, in all sorts of things. It leapt the species barrier in bees, why can’t it do so in humans? GM is BAD. Just sayin’.
(4:53 pm: Edited to clarify the possible role of the pesticide Sevin in CCD.)