Industrialised 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. Environmental stress can also be a reason for increasing pressure from parasites. 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 so 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: genetically engineered honey bees that can adapt and survive in changed environmental conditions. However, we are not currently at the stage where genetically engineered honey bees are ready to be released. Nevertheless, in 2014, German scientists showed that it is possible to genetically engineer whole colonies of honey bees.
With the help of new genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas, scientists are now trying to trace genes or block relevant genes in the genome of bees in order to investigate their function. In addition, biologically active substances, such as miRNAs, can now be synthesised - and used to change gene regulation and gene activity. These miRNAs can, for instance, be administered via feed. Theoretically, this could make honey bees more resistant to environmental toxins.
Currently, it is planned to administer synthetic miRNAs via honey bee feed meant to be taken up also by the parasites that invade beehives; the biologically active substances bring about changes in gene regulation which then cause the parasites to die (in particular, varroa mites).
What is the problem?
Interactions between honey bees and their environment are manifold 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 only the individual honey bees.
Furthermore, honey bee colonies forage over areas covering many kilometres and pollinate a wide range of plants. This means that they can spread bacteria and parasites, which due to alterations in their gene regulation can display unintentional changes. Even the honey bees themselves can be harmed. At a fundamental level, miRNAs can actively cross species boundaries. In certain circumstances, even the composition of the honey could be affected and it can be assumed that miRNAs would be found in the honey.
Against the backdrop of the extreme biological complexity of honey bees, it would be irresponsible to intervene with their genome and or their gene regulation.
Monsanto has already positioned itself in this sector of genetic engineering. It has, for instance, filed patents on miRNA that can be administered to honey bees via their feed and which will supposedly, amongst other things, kill varroa mites. Monsanto believes that business with its new arsenal of „biological weaponry“ has even further potential for development since it proposes dealing with other species belonging to e.g. ichneumon wasps, crustaceans and flies in the same way.