Industrial agriculture has put enormous strain on honey bee colonies. Amongst other things, honey bees are exposed to diverse toxins largely due to the spraying of crops. Other factors include a frequent lack of suitable flowering plants. Additionally, all of these factors can contribute to increasing parasitic infestation. In short: honey bee habitats have been changed so severely that the survival of honey bees is under threat.
Honey bees are absolutely essential as pollinators, therefore 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 is trying the latter solution: genetically engineered honey bees that can adapt and survive in changed environmental conditions. We are not currently at the stage where genetically engineered honey bees are ready to be released. However, a whole range of scientific publications show that CRISPR has already been repeatedly used on honey bees. In 2019, scientists in South Korea published the first paper on research with honey bees engineered with CRISPR to supposedly make them resistant to an insecticide.
What is the problem?
Interactions between honey bees and their environment are diverse and extremely complex.
Honey bee colonies can function as one whole body forming a kind of “superorganism” in which they can, for example, influence the gene activity of their offspring through food, and thereby ensure that worker bees (all female) or queen bees are produced as required. Changes made in the genomes of the insects will always affect the honey bee colony as a whole, not just the individual honey bees. In effect, CRISPR is being used to target the development of the queen bees; this means that whole honey bee colonies could be genetically engineered. Furthermore, honey bee colonies have an extensive flight range covering many kilometres and pollinate a wide range of plants. This is where they come into contact with the pesticides used in agriculture. Several scientific publications mention the possibility of using genetic engineering to make the bees resistant to these sprays. This is often referred to as ‘species conservation with genetic engineering‘.
However, the problem of species extinction cannot be solved with genetic engineering. If we want to save honey bees, we need to protect their natural populations. Given the extremely complex biology of honey bees and their multitudinous interactions with the environment, any intervention in their genome would be irresponsible.
New genetic engineering technology can also be used to synthesize new biological messengers such as miRNAs. These can be used to target gene regulation and change gene activity. The miRNAs are meant to be administered via feed and then, via the bees, also absorbed by the parasites, in particular, the Varroa mite. This will change gene regulation in the mites and kill them. Monsanto (Bayer) has, for example, already filed patents for such genetically modified miRNAs. The company obviously believes that it can expand its business with its new ‘arsenal’ of ‘biological weaponry’: other species such as ichneumonids, crustaceans and the flies could be also targeted in this way.
An unintended effect of changing gene regulation in bees could be to make them carriers of bacteria and parasites. Even the bees themselves could be harmed. In principle, miRNA is active across species. There is also a possibility that the composition of the honey would be affected since it can be assumed that it would contain the new miRNAs.