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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.
he 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 
	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

Comment RM: Is that an authentic quote from Einstein?  As a biologist 
myself, I fail to see how such a number could be calculated; he 
wasn't a biologist, so I really wonder whether he did proffer such an 
	Anyhow, this is a most menacing epidemic which pro-GM govts 
are failing to investigate.  In parts of the USA, bees are fed 
commercial 'patties' incorporating pollen which could be from some of 
the many GM-plants lately grown in the USA.  Deviant metabolism in 
those GM-plants could conceivably poison bees that eat the pollen.