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Posted 25 March 07

Are GM crops Killing our bees ?

Two pieces of text below, the first from America's most prestigious and effective advocate for the environment ... the Sierra Club and the second from "Der Spiegel" is Europe's biggest and Germany's most influential news magazine with a circulation of around one million.

The first letter below from the Sierra Club makes a case that was more or less ignored in the US NRC 2006 report on honey bee decline. The problem is not only honey bee death but the tunnel vision of a US government-academic cabal who wish to ignore agricultural pesticides and most strikingly GM crops. Like the problem of global warming US science funding is tied more to political ideology than to full and truthful inquiry. The tragedy is that the honey bees will suffer the consequences. Genetic Engineering GE and bee Colony Collapse Disorder -- science needed!

Download the CRS report for Congress 26 Mar 07 ... "Recent Honey Bee Colony Declines"  (in pdf format ...188Kb)


Dear Senator Thomas Harkin,

We share similar concerns. The viability of a robust food supply is paramount to the American people.

One out of every three bites of food that we consume is due to the work of honeybees, serving as crucial pollinators in agriculture and farming communities. Yet agriculture and food production may be severely impacted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a trend documented in honey bee colonies and prominently featured in a New York Times story (1). Beekeepers are reporting estimates as high as 80% loss of their honey bee colonies. Such a huge loss of the services of bees is extremely serious and beekeepers report it's a growing trend.

The cause of CCD is unknown. Although factors being considered include pesticides, mites, microbial disease and habitat decline, there's a possible link that's not being investigated. Highly respected scientists believe that exposure to genetically engineered crops and their plant-produced pesticides merit serious consideration as either the cause or a contributory factor to the development and spread of CCD.(2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10) In searching for the cause of massive honey bee losses nationwide, we must leave no stone unturned to find the answer.

This past decade we are seeing releases into the environment that we have never before seen on this planet. Genetic engineering involves the artificial transfer of genes from one organism into another, bypassing the protective barrier between species. Scientists admit that "unintended consequences" may occur due to the lack of precision and specificity in the DNA sites on different plant chromosomes where the inserted genes randomly end up. According to the prominent biologist Dr. Barry Commoner and pioneer in ecology, "Genetically engineered crops represent a huge uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic."(11) Dr. David Schubert has expressed similar concerns in pointing out some of the significant holes existing in current genetic engineering technology that raise serious questions about how well we understand it and how to apply such a new emerging science.(12) An issue Dr. Schubert raises is the "unpredictability" in the artificial gene splicing technology that is routinely performed in genetic engineering because it may lead to unpredictable consequences. Are the honey bees trying to tell us about the "unintended consequences" from large-scale genetic engineering in agriculture?

Investigators have raised the possibility that honey bees are experiencing a sublethal effect such as a "suppressed immune system" from an unknown toxin. However, sublethal effects have not been fully investigated. Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the "strong immune suppression" investigators have observed "could be the AIDS of the bee industry," making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off. (1) Nonetheless, a concern is that genetically engineered crops are being ignored as a possible culprit, especially with tens of millions of acres now being planted each year of cultivars producing large concentrations of pesticides that did not exist on such a scale just a decade ago.

Currently regulators fail to require adequate analysis of transgene insertion sites. This omission results from the failure to appreciate the magnitude of genetic damage sustained by transgenic plants.(11,12) Regulators have also failed to adequately assess the potential for lethal and sublethal impacts of engineered crop pesticides on pollinators like honey bees and wild bees, including the larvae brood and young bees. Studies are needed to evaluate the impact of GE crops on sublethal effects such as learning and feeding behaviour. In addition, honey bee colonies are being fed GE corn syrups and parts of recycled hives containing additional GE food residues. The effect of these feeding practices on bees needs study.

Considering that loss of honeybee pollinators can leave a huge void in the kitchens of the American people and an estimated loss of 14 billion dollars to farmers, it would be prudent to use caution. If genetically engineered crops are killing honeybees, a moratorium on their planting should be considered.

Senator Harkin, as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, you are in a key position to initiate investigations to determine if exposure to genetically engineered crops is the missing link. Emergency funding for research on the pollinator decline needs to be available to researchers and the USDA.

Most sincerely,
Laurel Hopwood,
Chair Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee

1. Alexei Barrioneuva, The New York Times, February 27, 2007: Honeybees, Gone With the Wind, Leave Crops and Keepers in Peril

2. Malone,L and Pham-Delègue,M. "Effects of transgene products on honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumblebees (Bombus sp.)" Apidologie 2001,32,287-304.

3. Obrycki,J, Losey, J, Taylor,O, Jesee,L. "Transgenic insecticidal corn: Beyond insecticidal toxicity to ecological complexity." Bioscience May 2001/Vol 51 No. 5

4. Pham-Delègue, M.H., et. al. 2002. "Direct and Indirect Effects of Genetically Modified Plants on the Honey Bee," Honey Bees: Estimating the Environmental Impact of Chemicals, pp. 312-326.

5. Picard-Nioi, A.L,.et al. Pham-Delegue, M.H. "Impact of proteins used in plant genetic engineering: Toxicity and behavioral study in the honeybee." J. Econ. Entomol.997,90,1710-1716.

6. Ricarda A. Steinbrecher, "Risks associated with ingestion of Chardon LL maize, The reversal of N-acetyl-L- glufosinate to the active herbicide L-glufosinate in the gut of animals," Chardon LL Hearing, May 2002, London.

7. Mohr KI and Tebbe CC. "Field study results on the probability and risk of a horizontal gene transfer from transgenic herbicide-resistant oilseed rape pollen to gut bacteria of bees." Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2007 in press,DOI 10.1007/s00253, 007-0846-7.

8. Ramirez-Romero,R,Chaufaux,J and Pham-Delègue,M. "Effects of Cry1Ab protoxin, deltamethrin and imidacloprid on the foraging activity and the learning performances of the honeybee Apis mellifera, a comparative approach" Apidologie 36 (2005) 601-11.

9. Hilbeck,A and Schmid,J. "Another view of Bt proteins-How specific are they and what else might they do" Biopestic. Int. 2006,2,1-50.

10. Morandin,L and Winston,M. "Wild bee abundance and seed production in conventional, organic and genetically modified canola" Ecological Applications 2004,15,871-81.

11. Commoner, B. "Unraveling the DNA Myth: The spurious foundation of genetic engineering." Harper's Magazine, February 2002, 39-47.

12. Schubert, D. "Regulatory regimes for transgenic crops." Nature Biotechnology 23,785 - 787 (2005).



Der Spiegel is Europe's biggest and Germany's most influential news magazine with a circulation of around one million.

EXTRACT: The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees... According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in Eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."
Are GM Crops Killing Bees?
By Gunther Latsch
Der Spiegel (edited)

A mysterious decimation of bee populations has German beekeepers worried, while a similar phenomenon in the United States is gradually assuming catastrophic proportions. The consequences for agriculture and the economy could be enormous.

Is the mysterious decimation of bee populations in the US and Germany a result of GM crops? Walter Haefeker is a man who is used to painting grim scenarios. He sits on the board of directors of the German Beekeepers Association (DBIB) and is vice president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. And because griping is part of a lobbyist's trade, it is practically his professional duty to warn that "the very existence of beekeeping is at stake."

The problem, says Haefeker, has a number of causes, one being the varroa mite, introduced from Asia, and another is the widespread practice in agriculture of spraying wildflowers with herbicides and practicing monoculture. Another possible cause, according to Haefeker, is the controversial and growing use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

As far back as 2005, Haefeker ended an article he contributed to the journal Der Kritischer Agrarbericht (Critical Agricultural Report) with an Albert Einstein quote: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Mysterious events in recent months have suddenly made Einstein's apocalyptic vision seem all the more topical. For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing -- something that is so far only harming beekeepers. But the situation is different in the United States, where bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.


The scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. "This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them," says Cox-Foster.

Walter Haefeker, the German beekeeping official, speculates that "besides a number of other factors," the fact that genetically modified, insect-resistant plants are now used in 40 percent of cornfields in the United States could be playing a role. The figure is much lower in Germany -- only 0.06 percent -- and most of that occurs in the eastern states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg. Haefeker recently sent a researcher at the CCD Working Group some data from a bee study that he has long felt shows a possible connection between genetic engineering and diseases in bees.

The study in question is a small research project conducted at the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004. The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."

Of course, the concentration of the toxin was ten times higher in the experiments than in normal Bt corn pollen. In addition, the bee feed was administered over a relatively lengthy six-week period. Kaatz would have preferred to continue studying the phenomenon but lacked the necessary funding. "Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research," says the professor, "and those who are interested don't have the money."

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