Honeybee Disappearance: The GMO Connection

Our previous articles in this series examined the possible causes of colony collapse disorder, the pesticide connection and, in particular, systemic pesticides, and the response from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Here, I examine the role that genetically engineered crops or GMOs possibly play in the current bee die offs.

The GMO Buzz

European honey bee (Apis mellifera).  Photo by Artūras Rožė/Wikipedia.

European honey bee (Apis mellifera). Photo by Artūras Rožė/Wikipedia.

It is probably not a coincidence that Bayer, one of five biotech giants, and the world’s leading pesticide manufacturer, makes clothianidin, a systemic pesticide of the neonicotinoid family, for treatment on seeds most of which are genetically engineered — corn, canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat (the only non-gm seed at this point). (See why systemic pesticides differ from other pesticides here.)

In the U.S., corn is grown on approximately 92.3 million acres nationwide. Eighty-eight percent of the corn planted was with seeds developed through biotechnology. Despite the fact that corn is wind pollinated, bees still work the corn because it is widely available and is a rich source of protein. Bees also work the soybean, another seed that is treated with clothianidin. In 2011, soybeans were planted on 75.2 million acres nationwide. Ninety four percent of planted soybeans were transgenic.

The lack of independent analysis of the synergistic impact of various pesticides and herbicides on bees is disconcerting by itself. Added to that concern is the lack of independent scientific analysis of the impact of transgenic crops like corn and soybeans and their formulaic pesticides on bees, independently, and in combination with other chemicals and with neonicotinoids in particular. Also, beekeepers and researchers are concerned that systemic pesticides, which could remain in the soil for years after the initial application, could be taken up by other plants used during crop rotation and thus potentially remain a constant threat to bees.

Neonicotinoids also have the potential to contaminate ground water, a concern expressed by beekeepers like Tom Theobald and researchers alike. “Even low concentrations of the pesticide may be more deadly then [sic] previously thought due to their high persistence in soil and water.”

The more genetically engineered crops like soybean and corn are planted, the more bees and other animals are exposed to potentially toxic pesticides, while the plants are growing and potentially years thereafter.

Furthermore, since the impact of these chemicals has not been independently studied and verified, the only thing that can be stated with certainty is that we do not really know much about the effects,  especially long term, of transgenic crops and pesticides, alone, in combination or at sublethal levels, on bees or other animals.

Professor James Frazier, Ph.D, a professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, explained that independent research on transgenic crops and formulaic pesticides is hampered by the unavailability of information and materials and is “even less available than pesticide information” because it is regarded as proprietary information by the biotech companies. In a refrain often echoed by other researchers, an intellectual property wall often stands between independent science and chemical makers.