Riley Dehr: Why genetic modification is the bee's knees

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 5:18pm

Bees are often seen as one of mankind’s most beloved animals. Whether it be the buzz over Honey Nut Cheerios or Jerry Seinfeld’s sarcastic character Barry from the "Bee Movie," we seem to have a greater affinity for these striped insects than we do for their six-legged relatives. Man-made bee habitats scattered throughout campus, most notably in the East Quad Residence Hall garden, reflect this love. Even so, the bee population is still struggling to maintain its numbers due to habitat loss and the often avoidable use of pesticides.  

On a sunny Monday morning in September 2016, beekeepers in and around the town of Smallville, N.C., found their hives —and livelihoods — in tatters. Millions of bees littered the ground, clumped together in mangled balls of crooked legs and motionless wings.  Areas that were once filled with the hum of thousands of honeybees were now silent. Juanita Stanley, one of the affected beekeepers, recalled her initial reaction to The New York Times: “Honestly, I just fell to the ground. I was crying, and I couldn’t quit crying, and I was throwing up.”

Beekeepers immediately set out to discover the culprit behind the deaths of their bees. They found that their county had haphazardly aerially sprayed a pesticide, Naled, the day before in order to eradicate mosquitoes, inadvertently killing tens of thousands of honeybees in the process.

The county administrator, Jason Ward, half-heartedly apologized for the issue, saying “We’ve learned that the beekeeping community in Dorchester County, and in that area in particular, is larger than we were aware of.” Pesticide sprays — targeted at pests like mosquitoes — are becoming increasingly common throughout United States, killing countless bees and destroying hives. While deaths of captive bees on this scale due to pesticide sprays are rare, the chemicals are known to devastate populations of wild bees and dozens of other insect species. According to bee researcher Dennis vanEngelsdorp, “if you’re killing honeybees, you’re killing a lot of other non-honeybee pollinators, too, and those populations could take a long time to recover.” 

Since the negative effects of pesticides on insect populations still not fully known, one can only guess how many insects and animals — beloved or not — have been killed in the crossfire in the war against pests, like zika-carrying mosquitoes. An unexpected alternative brings hope to the situation, however, giving the bees a chance to buzz on. The unintentional slaughter from pesticide use is pushing some Southern states to look towards genetic modification as a sustainable alternative, altering the reproductive systems of pests in order to disrupt their populations. Genetically modified mosquitoes have been released in Africa and South America to fight zika and malaria-carrying mosquito species with considerable success. This is just one example in which genetic modification has worked towards fixing an environmental issue. In fact, many environmentalists see genetic modification as an answer to various environmental issues, including feeding a burgeoning human population on less land and helping endangered species adapt to climate change. 

While many environmentalists see the process of genetic modification as a sort of Frankenstein-esque process, others support its use. Even so, like thousands of Ian Malcolms, many have spoken out against the practice of genetic modification, warranting their fears by using information unfounded in and often disproven by modern science.  

Genetic modification of organisms has actually been the norm for decades in the agricultural industry due to its wide variety of benefits. Genetically modified food sources result in a higher yield, reducing deforestation in the process, and often requiring less pesticides than organic crops. Even the great Bill Nye, once a critic of genetic modification, has come to endorse its use, saying on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast, “StarTalk,” that “genetically modified food has no effect on us.” Genetic modification is not without its flaws, however. It contributes to the worldwide loss in crop diversity and the corporate domination of the world’s food supply, with 53 percent of the world’s food supply being owned by just three companies.  

Whether the moral dilemmas outweigh the benefits has yet to be proven. The FDA has declared the practice safe and the nation must start allowing facts to drive the discussions around genetic modification rather than dystopian presumptions. So if you go out there and eat a beautiful, genetically modified apple that shines so bright it burns your eyes, or an orange the size of a fat baby, you might just be saving the world.   

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.