Chief Science Correspondent
They might have a bad reputation among picnickers and beach-goers, but it's no secret that honeybees - responsible for the production of 90 commercially grown crops - are vitally important for both the environment and the economy.
That's why President Obama has made saving these pollinators a top priority, announcing the assembly of a task force designated to saving the honeybees last week. The bees have decreased in numbers by more than 50 percent over the past 70 years, a trend researchers attribute to pesticides, mite infestations, and loss of genetic diversity. This phenomenon is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
The Organic Consumers Association blames the modified organisms (GMOs) in crop production, arguing that the pesticides used by Monsanto have contributed to the CCD. However, the OCA's claims are untrue. In fact, GMOs hold the potential to save the honeybee species.
Neonicotinoids were linked to the decline of the honeybee in a Harvard study, published in the Bulletin of Insectology earlier this month. The study found that colonies exposed to the pesticide treatment were less adept at recovering from harsh winters, leading to decreased numbers in the spring.
However, this study has been criticized for a number of reasons. First, the team changed their protocol halfway through their experiment when their results did not what they had expected, raising the pesticides to mortally and arguably unrealistically high levels. Secondly, the bees' deaths did not match the typical symptoms of CCD, according to a member of Scientific Beekeeping.
Until the results reported by the Harvard study are are confirmed, there is no way to evaluate whether neonicotinoids have caused CCD.
The French Comité Scientifique et Technique has made various efforts since the 90s to remove neonicotinoids from agriculture. However, the removal has had little to no effect on bee survival. Similar results have been reported in other countries with neonicotinoid restrictions.
Monsanto critics who blame the company for the downfall of the bees are missing the point of what GMOs are designed for. Many of Monsanto's current pesticides have been criticized as dangerous, although the credibility of these claims remains under debate.
However, genetic engineering offers the potential to solve these very problems. The company is currently pursuing a project through the acquired company Beeologics that would use RNA interference (read here for a review of RNAi and its potential for crop production, along with some criticisms).
The project claims it will protect bees by "silencing" the Israeli acute paralysis virus and parasitic mites that infect the bees. The technology holds the potential to save the bees because it eliminates two problems attributed to their collapse: mites and the need for potentially harmful pesticides.
Unfortunately, extensive information on this project does not appear to be readily available, and the reports that exist suggest the treatment will not be available anytime soon.
An alternative would be for Monsanto to develop engineered pesticides within crops that specifically target certain insects, leaving bees, humans and other organisms unaffected.
While there is likely not one perfect answer for saving our buzzing friends, it is clear that we must do something before it is too late. Previous methods, including the removal of suspect chemicals, have had no effect thus far. It's time to look to new methods, and biotechnological researchers just might have the answer.