Damage to honey bee habitats has been so extensive that the survival of honey bees is under threat. There are two possible strategies for solving this problem: either create (or rather recreate) an environment in which the honey bees can thrive, or engineer an altogether new type of bee. Genetic engineering has chosen latter solution: producing genetically engineered honey bees that can adapt and survive in changed environmental conditions. In 2014, German scientists showed that it was possible to genetically engineer whole colonies of honey bees. In 2019, a research paper was published in South Korea on bees that had been engineered to be resistant to insecticides. In 2020, a publication reported that the olfactory sense of bees can be blocked using CRISPR technology.
There are further projects whose aim is to change the microbes in the gut of bees: researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have engineered the genome of gut bacteria, which occur naturally in the gut of bees and bumble bees, to make them produce additional biologically active molecules (double stranded ribonucleic acid, dsRNA). These molecules can interfere with gene regulation across species boundaries. These molecules are, for example, intended to target bee behaviour and thus enhance pollination effectiveness. Other purposes are to kill parasites, such as Varroa mites or rapid degradation of pesticides to which the bees are exposed.
According to a US patent application filed by the researchers (US 2019 / 0015528 A1), the patent not only claims the bacteria as an invention, but also the honey bees and all other insects in whose gut these genetically engineered bacteria are found. The patent application is a clear indication of plans to turn genetically engineered bacteria into a profitable business.
This is highly problematic: if bees with these microbes were to be released, the bacteria could not be prevented from infecting other honey bee colonies or wild relatives, such as bumble bees. In addition, their synthetic genes can also be transferred to other species of bacteria. Consequently, once released, the spread of these organisms and their synthetic genes could not be efficiently controlled.
Currently, there are a number of projects aiming to turn genetically engineered microorganisms into a new and profitable playing field. This will, however, create a high degree of risk for the environment. Especially so-called “paratransgensis” is becoming one of the leading technologies: instead of directly manipulating the target organisms (such as honey bees), this involves the genetic engineering of associated microorganisms (such as the gut flora). As a result, these can produce biologically active substances able to change the biological characteristics of their ‘hosts’. These complex interactions will create a whole new dimension of environmental risk.
This example shows that ‘indirect’ genetic engineering (paratransgenesis) of bee populations (also including wild species) is possible by targeting their gut flora. Even though the environmental risks cannot be sufficiently defined or controlled, there is already considerable interest in marketing these genetically engineered organisms.