Beekeepers are sounding the alarm about the latest developments in genetically modified pollinators. By Bernhard Warner
he spring of 2008 was brutal for Europe’s honeybees. In late April and early May, during the corn-planting season, dismayed beekeepers in Germany’s upper Rhine valley looked on as whole colonies perished. Millions of bees died. France, the Netherlands and Italy reported big losses, but in Germany the incident took on the urgency of a national crisis. “It was a disaster,” recalled Walter Haefeker, German president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. “The government had to set up containers along the autobahn where beekeepers could dump their hives.”
An investigation in July of that year concluded that the bees in Germany died of mass poisoning by the pesticide clothianidin, which can be 10,000 times more potent than DDT. In the months leading up to the bee crisis, clothianidin, developed by Bayer Crop Science from a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, had been used up and down the Rhine following an outbreak of corn rootworm. The pesticide is designed to attack the nervous system of crop-munching pests, but studies have shown it can be harmful to insects such as the European honeybee. It muddles the bees’ super-acute sense of direction and upsets their feeding habits, while it can also alter the queen’s reproductive anatomy and sterilise males. As contaminated beehives piled up, Bayer paid €2m (£1.76m) into a compensation fund for beekeepers in the affected area, but offered no admission of guilt.