There was quite a stir among beekeepers and anti-GMO activists during the fall of 2012 when chemical and seed giant Monsanto purchased Beeologics, a small company best known for its “groundbreaking research” applying RNAi technology to honeybees, a process that blocks gene expression. This was Monsanto’s first acquisition of a pest control biotech company.
Since its inception in 2007, Beeologics has been developing Remebee, an antiviral treatment for use in honeybees affected with Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), a bee-specific virus which originated from Australia and was found and named in Israel in 2002.
President and CEO Eyal Ben-Chanoch explained in 2008 that Beeologics was assembling scientists, beekeepers, and business people “to create the missing corporate support” in an industry that traditionally has only been supported by a few hardware manufacturers. Sure, there were hives, tools, bee suits, and the like being offered, but very little had been invested in technology and medicine for the bees — until Beeologics came along, that is.
To put things in context, many scientists were all abuzz about IAPV at the time. Many firmly believed that it was a primer for colony collapse disorder (CCD). Remebee, meanwhile, was regarded as a first line of defense to control the virus and its effect on bee mortality.
The Pesticide Problem
While CCD is a complex issue, no doubt, much of the developing research points to another cause: newfangled chemicals called systemic pesticides. Instead of being applied to leaves, they are enrobed on seeds or entrenched in the soil, allowing for the poison to literally become part of the plant.
Consequently, honeybees bring the systemic pesticides back to the hive in the form of pollen and nectar and store it in their honeycomb. When future generations dip into their reserves, they ingest toxins that target their central nervous system, affect their navigational capabilities and impair their memory. More importantly, the chemicals compromise their immune system – the No. 1 key to fighting any kind of insult to the body, including a virus like IAPV.
Ben-Chanoch didn’t quite agree with our conclusions back then, saying, “While I am also concerned with the world we are going to leave to our children, those who are using so-called facts that are based on pseudo- or incomplete scientific work are as dangerous as the chemical companies who don’t release the data they have.”
New research just released this winter has confirmed that sub-lethal exposure to a particular class for these systemic pesticides (neonicotinoids) are directly linked to an increase in Nosema virus in honeybee colonies. Both Nosema and neonicotinoids have been implicated as contributors to CCD, and this latest piece of real, complete science adds another nail to the chemical coffin.
Insect inoculation may be the latest rave, but is it the best solution? Today we know that subsequent research failed to confirm a link between CCD and IAPV. Although IAPV can result in honeybee mortality, the symptoms are not consistent with those of bees dying from CCD.
With that said, why does Monsanto claim that “the Remebee product line is now proving to be a viable solution to colony collapse disorder” on their website?
Perhaps antiviral remedies are the next generation of products used to combat agricultural pests and pathogens, but they don’t deal with the root of our problems such as native bee extinctions and unsustainable agriculture (i.e. GMO crops, pesticides, and herbicides). In the end, we will still have a polluted environment.
There may other ramifications as a result of these gene expression manipulations as well. “Basically, if the bees eat Remebee, there are likely to be unknown effects in gene expression, antiviral abilities, their ability to evolve inherent defenses against viruses, and more,” says Brian Dykstra, the administrator behind Ethnobeeology who holds a B.S. in environmental policy and an M.S. in progress pollination biology.
Meanwhile, researchers are discovering the chilling potential long-term effects of RNA manipulation. It was once thought changes needed to occur within the DNA to be passed down through the generations. It is now clear that changes to micro-RNA can be inherited without any DNA involvement. Recent research has also provided the first example of ingested plant micro-RNA surviving digestion and influencing human cell function.
Monsanto’s website, however, claims, “there is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans.” And Beeologics is confident that the acquisition comes at an ideal time and that they are in safe hands.
Which brings us back to Monsanto, arguably the most detested chemical company on the planet.
Why were they drawn to Beeologics? Was it because the competition (Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science) had also expressed interest? Or was it because they had identified some low-hanging fruit to add to their portfolio of proprietary lifeforms? Perhaps Monsanto, which boasts a revenue of more than $10.5 billion per year, plans on buying anything and everything to do with gene manipulation?
Considering that the honeybee genome has been sequenced, how long before we bear witness to a genetically modified bee? If seeds are any indication, Apis melifera may also soon belong to Monsanto. Kill the bees with GMO plants and pesticides, offer a Band-Aid solution by creating a bee that is resistant to all the crap peddled on the market and then “persuade” beekeepers to buy Monsanto bees or else. It’s wicked genius.
But I am sure Monsanto and many others would call all of this paranoid phooey. Take beekeeper and scientist Randy Oliver’s opinion on the subject: “Honeybees aren’t an organism that anyone who understands anything about their molecular biology would advise as a subject for genetic modification,” he recently told colleagues on the online Bee List. “Do you really think that Monsanto envisions that there would be any substantive return on investment on a patented bee?”
Not 30 years ago, we were saying the same thing about patented plants.
According to a Monsanto press release, it will be business as usual. Beeologics will continue to “promote bee health” under the new ownership. And Monsanto will simply use “the base technology from Beeologics as a part of its continuing discovery and development pipeline.” Whatever that means.
To further reassure folks, the press release goes on to describe Monsanto as “a leading global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improves farm productivity and food quality.” They even state that they are into sustainability.
My jaw dropped. Apparently Monsanto is experiencing delusions about its identity. In the past two decades, Monsanto’s seed monopoly has grown so powerful that they control the genetics of nearly 90 percent of five major commodity crops: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, and sugar beets! They make gobs of cash and yet sue farmers both in the United States and in struggling international communities.
Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto admits to filing 144 lawsuits against America’s farmers, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. Due to these aggressive lawsuits, Monsanto has created an atmosphere of fear in rural America and driven dozens of farmers into bankruptcy. As one person recently remarked on the Vanishing of the Bees Facebook page, “it’s a shitty business model to create something that can’t be controlled except by suing the hell out of people.”