[NAFEX] Are GM Crops Killing Honeybees?

BRosholdt 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 
largely ignored.

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 
60 percent.

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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