Over the years research has been conducted to understand why the bees have been disappearing, and the culprit seems to be Monsanto’s genetically modified herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto, a chemical and agricultural biotech company, has received quite the bad reputation from activists across the spectrum because of research linking them to human related issues like autism, cancer, and obesity. But, evidence suggests that Monsanto’s GMO’s have negative ecological consequences as well, and are partially responsible for the collapse of the buzzing bees.
The history of the declining bee population, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) goes back to 2002 when a bee-specific virus had been identified, which was causing their numbers to plummet. The Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) had originated in Australia and scientist assumed that IAPV was to blame for what was steadily becoming a global bee colony collapse. Yet the sudden onset and devastating results of IAPV had researchers looking for possible causes that would have compromised the immune system of the honey bee, leaving the entire population vulnerable to such a virus.
Developing research found that the bees were ingesting systemic pesticides that were now a part of the DNA structure of the plants that bees were pollinating. Historically speaking, when pesticides were used in the past, they were sprayed on leaves or the body of the plant, which left the pollen and bees unaffected. The pollen now, however, carries the same DNA as the rest of the plant, thus contaminating the entire food supply that the bees depend on.
A clear picture of how Monsanto’s pesticides are partly responsible for the collapse of bee colonies is becoming more evident. Tests done on bees that were exposed to Monsanto’s Mon810 corn, a genetically engineered corn crop that produces insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) showed that, once ingested by the bees, Bt binds to receptors within the gut which stop the bees from eating. This results in bees that are weaker and unable to produce enough honey to sustain their colonies. Research on the mechanisms and function of Bt, from the University of California, San Diego, explain that Bt was designed to work this way within insects; first by reducing an insects capacity to eat, then breaking down the intestinal wall, which, lastly, exposes the insect to spores and bacteria that would otherwise be controlled and isolated within the gut of the insect.
Whats more, is that it is not just Bt thats causing the problem. On their Save The Bees page, Greenpeace explains the use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, causes acute and chronic poisoning not just of one bee, but of the entire colony. When the bees collect the nectar and pollen from flowers of plants engineered to produce these systemic pesticides, they bring it back to the hive and store it in the honeycombs. The younger generations of bees, which eat these reserves, are then exposed to the pesticides severely damaging their ability to function normally. Unlike Bt which attacks an insects immune system, neonicotinoids targets the central nervous system (CNS) of insects, damaging their navigational capabilities, impairing their memory, and eventually leads to paralysis. If bees cannot find their way back to the hive, due to impaired navigational capacities, then they cannot bring the nutrients back which are necessary for sustaining the colony and its honey production. Similarly, if a bee cannot fly, then a bee cannot pollinate, which is necessary to the lifecycle of flowering plants and sustaining our agriculture.
Understanding the effect that the use of Monsanto’s pesticides has on a bees ability to maintain a healthy immune system and functioning CNS, it becomes clear how these pesticides make bees more susceptible to CCD. With a compromised CNS, bees lose their ability to adequately provide nourishment to the colony, which keeps the colony functioning. A weakened immune system prevents bees from the natural ability to ward off parasites or bacteria that make them vulnerable to disease. The bees simply cannot fight off the virus in such a compromised state.
Research from governments around the world have come to the same conclusion regarding the hazards involved with systemic pesticides and bee collapse. In May of 2012, Poland officially banned the use of Monsanto’s MON810, holding it responsible, at least in part, to CCD. France also imposed its own ban on Monsanto’s pesticide, and in general the European Food Safety Authority found the use of systemic pesticides unacceptable. The United States, however, has yet to embrace the research of the harmful effects that Monsanto’s genetically engineered pesticides has on the bees, or ecology in general.
Bees and other insects, are susceptible to a wide range of viruses, just like mammals are. The IAVP is just one example of such a virus but other dangerous ones exist such as the Nosema virus, a fungal parasite, and the deformed wing virus, which impairs flight and has spread outside the honey bee population to the bumble bee as well. These viruses are contributing to the overall decline in numbers of our most precious pollinators. Monsanto’s genetically engineered pesticides may not be the cause of the collapse but they certainly play a role in making bees more vulnerable to the viruses which are drastically reducing their numbers.
By Natalia Sanchez