20 March 1998

Naturalness of honey safe with bee-keepers?

In our latest look at the potential impact of genetically

modified crops on UK agriculture, Peter Grimshaw

considers the concerns of bee-keepers

SCIENTIFIC evidence showing altered proteins from genetically modified crops do not get into pollen or nectar is reassuring bee-keepers for now.

But keen to maintain the natural image of honey, they are keeping a watchful eye on GM crop trials all the same.

"Fears that our members have about any risk to their bees or to the environment must be allayed," says British Beekeepers Association technical committee chairman Peter Dalby.

He is convinced by current scientific evidence that bees, their broods and their honey are unaffected by feeding from GM oilseed rape crops.

That is despite recent adverse media coverage which suggested transgenic proteins could have affected the longevity and learning skills of bees.

But the bees referred to were force-fed large amounts of transgenic proteins, stresses entomologist Guy Poppy, who heads a team looking at transgenic plants at IACR Rothamsted and worked with French colleagues on the joint EU Biotech programme quoted by the Press.

"The true science showed that at the levels of the transgenic protein found in plants, no effect could be found."

More importantly most transgenic plants do not appear to express the transgene in the nectar or pollen, he says. "Bees cannot, therefore, pick up these foreign proteins."

Even so the BBA has urged members to keep an eye on their local Press for notices of licence applications for GM crop trial sites.

"We are advising them to get in touch with the licence applicant and ask a lot of questions," says Mr Dalby. "Questions like, what are you growing? How will that affect our bees? How will it affect the pollen produced by the crop?"

A more important consideration could be whether a GM crop affects bee behaviour in other ways, such as a different scent profile, Dr Poppy suggests. Bee-keepers have already complained that modern varieties are not as attractive as older ones.

But all oilseed rape exerts a very strong pull on bees, notes ADAS Bridgets entomologist Jon Oakley. If GM crops are grown bee-keepers will be unable to avoid them, he says.

"At the time of year when rape is flowering, theyll fly quite a long way – three miles or more – to get to it. If its there, the bees will go and work it."

The real problems for bee-keepers may come in the future, with the introduction of GM crops carrying insecticidal BT genes. GM maize and cotton containing such genes are already commercially available in the US. There are real fears that pollen from such crops could damage broods if fed to them.

"Meanwhile, no insect-resistant crops have been commercialised in the UK," says Dr Poppy. "So when people claim their bees are affected, it is certainly not transgenic crops that are doing it."

BEES AND GM CROPS

&#8226 Bee-keepers keen to protect natural image of honey.

&#8226 Checks on GM crop production, especially rape.

&#8226 GM proteins not found in nectar or pollen.

&#8226 BT insecticide genes greater worry for future.