[NAFEX] Are GM Crops Killing Honeybees?
rosholdt at erols.com
Mon Mar 26 19:48:05 EDT 2007
Anyone reliant on pollinators may find this article alarming...
From Spiegel International, translated from German
Are GM Crops Killing Bees?
By Gunther Latsch
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.
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.
Felix Kriechbaum, an official with a regional beekeepers' association in
Bavaria, recently reported a decline of almost 12 percent in local bee
populations. When "bee populations disappear without a trace," says
Kriechbaum, it is difficult to investigate the causes, because "most
bees don't die in the beehive." There are many diseases that can cause
bees to lose their sense of orientation so they can no longer find their
way back to their hives.
Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers Association,
almost simultaneously reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations
throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to
80 percent have been reported. He speculates that "a particular toxin,
some agent with which we are not familiar," is killing the bees.
Politicians, until now, have shown little concern for such warnings or
the woes of beekeepers. Although apiarists have been given a chance to
make their case -- for example in the run-up to the German cabinet's
approval of a genetic engineering policy document by Minister of
Agriculture Horst Seehofer in February -- their complaints are still
Even when beekeepers actually go to court, as they recently did in a
joint effort with the German chapter of the organic farming organization
Demeter International and other groups to oppose the use of genetically
modified corn plants, they can only dream of the sort of media attention
environmental organizations like Greenpeace attract with their protests
at test sites.
But that could soon change. Since last November, the US has seen a
decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous
incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United
States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock
since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to
In an article in its business section in late February, the New York
Times calculated the damage US agriculture would suffer if bees died
out. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have estimated
the value bees generate -- by pollinating fruit and vegetable plants,
almond trees and animal feed like clover -- at more than $14 billion.
Scientists call the mysterious phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder"
(CCD), and it is fast turning into a national catastrophe of sorts. A
number of universities and government agencies have formed a "CCD
Working Group" to search for the causes of the calamity, but have so far
come up empty-handed. But, like Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an apiarist with
the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, they are already referring
to the problem as a potential "AIDS for the bee industry."
One thing is certain: Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most
cases, all that's left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead
bees are nowhere to be found -- neither in nor anywhere close to the
hives. Diana Cox-Foster, a member of the CCD Working Group, told The
Independent that researchers were "extremely alarmed," adding that the
crisis "has the potential to devastate the US beekeeping industry."
It is particularly worrisome, she said, that the bees' death is
accompanied by a set of symptoms "which does not seem to match anything
in the literature."
In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee
viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have
disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were
infested with fungi -- a sign, experts say, that the insects' immune
system may have collapsed.
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."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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