Monsanto Company's Plan to Silence Its Critics and Save the Honeybees

Many plants rely on bumblebees and honeybees for pollination, but new evidence suggests populations are far from decimated. Image: author.

Depending on what you read and listen to, Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) is either one of the most innovative companies in America or the most corrupt company on the third rock from the sun. The company is highly criticized for a laundry list of alleged offenses against the environment, but few turn arguments turn as fierce as one involving populations of honeybees. A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids -- along with several genetically modified plant varieties engineered to produce such compounds -- have been widely viewed as the biggest culprit. The chemicals are produced by Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) and the agricultural subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Group (NYSE: DOW  ) , which makes them easy targets. 

It should come as no surprise that opposition groups picked up their megaphones and maxed out the volume in 2011, when Monsanto acquired Beeologics, a start-up company "dedicated to restoring bee health and protecting the future of honeybee pollination." Many suspected that Monsanto was simply trying to silence a company that was about to prove how destructive its biotech seeds and pesticides really were to honeybee populations. While Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and the declining populations of honeybees are often blamed on Monsanto and its peers, the biotech seed producer will probably get the last laugh. As it turns out, critics may be the ones who are silenced in the end.

Silencing critics by silencing genes
Ironically, Beeologics is a biotech company itself -- and one that is developing a portfolio of next-generation gene editing products utilizing RNA interference, or RNAi. The process occurs naturally within cells to defend against viruses (and other parasitic genetic material) and works by silencing genes, or keeping them from being expressed. The technology, which can be fine-tuned to silence a specific gene or genetic sequence, is also being developed by biopharmaceutical companies such as Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Isis Pharmaceuticals, and Genzyme to treat rare genetic disorders with high unmet medical need. It also won Andrew Fire and Craig Mello the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

So how can RNAi save the honeybees? Beeologics and Monsanto are developing the technology to silence two parasites that commonly affect agricultural pollinators: Israeli acute paralysis virus and parasitic mites belonging to the Varroa genus. Both can be targeted at the same time with the same product. Better yet, the first product created by Beeologics is delivered in feed, won't result in viral resistance, is extremely specific, is non-toxic, and does not leave residues on honeybees or honey. Future RNAi products currently being developed by Monsanto, called BioDirect, will be topical agents sprayed onto crops.

It's important to keep a healthy population of honeybees, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that they pollinate nearly one-third of all the food we eat and contribute $20 billion in economic value each year. To keep bees healthy, however, you need to know what is causing their decline. That is proving pretty difficult.

While neonicotinoids have been long thought to be the culprit to declining bee populations, new studies suggest it's a combination of factors that include pesticide use, parasitic viruses and mites, and natural environmental toxins. However, you may be surprised to know that honeybee populations aren't exactly collapsing as many headlines would make you believe. Before you conjure up a master conspiracy theory that the research was paid for by Monsanto, it's important to note two things: (1) Even Monsanto states that honeybee populations are declining, and (2) the following chart uses data collected by the USDA.

That's not to say honeybees don't face obstacles -- they certainly do -- but we're far from losing nature's army of pollinators. In fact, other data show that global hive counts have been steadily increasing since at least 1960. You can read more facts about honeybee population declines from Jon Entine, founder of the Genetic Literacy Project and a contributor for Forbes. 

Honeybees are just the beginning
The facts demonstrate that honeybee populations are relatively healthy and far from collapsing in an apocalyptic scenario for our nation's food system. That's good news for everyone -- and future biologic products utilizing highly specific RNAi technology from Beeologics and Monsanto will secure the future of even more agricultural products. The BioDirect portfolio could target resistant weeds, a single species of beetle, or various viral parasites without damaging the surrounding environment. It will be difficult for some people to acknowledge that Monsanto has been and continues to be a driving force in bringing agriculture into the future -- and some will never listen to the case for supporting the company -- but I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential biotechnology holds for our food supply.

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Read/Post Comments (19) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2014, at 7:49 PM, Acmeman wrote:

    The insect in the photo is a fly.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2014, at 8:59 PM, curious63304 wrote:

    Dow actually is, at best, a minor player in the neonicotinoid market. The largest player is Bayer, followed by Syngenta.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 1:23 AM, entheogenius wrote:

    Once they make em roundup resistant and patent them, we'll see honeybees all over the place with a little monsanto logo on their backs.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 2:05 AM, kkingbrian wrote:

    Monsanto: Saving the bees, refusing to help humanity unless they pay. They could save Africa if they wanted to, but that won't keep the politicians in their back pocket.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 8:12 AM, tempchennai wrote:

    What a joke!

    A cruel joke!!

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 9:41 AM, melobee wrote:

    Honeybees are factory-farmed livestock. Migratory beekeepers re-queen their hives often to diminish the effects of chemical and environmental stresses such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and their metabolites. Plus bees used in crop pollination are weakened by eating a highly limited diet for weeks at a time. Even with modern husbandry methods, professional beekeepers suffer ongoing losses in the 30% range. If you lost 30% of your cattle every year would you consider that sustainable? Honeybees managed by backyard beekeepers and feral bees or all kinds are affected by the aforementioned stressors plus persistent chemical toxins, habitat loss, viruses, invasive pests, and climate chaos. YES, neonicotinoids are just one of the many factors plaguing bees, but this class of chemicals are highly toxic in small doses and suspected in the mass declines of pollinators, birds, aquatic invertebrates - check out the American Bird Conservancy and Xerces Society findings for more on this topic. Is there even a remote possibility that one day, Big Ag and associated chemical companies like Monsanto, Sygenta, and Bayer (to name just a few) can really move us forward to a sustainable future that does not poison the environment in the aggressive pursuit of profit? I don't think so.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 10:53 AM, u4iadestiny wrote:

    Using "science" to save what "science" is destroying. Brilliant. Why do I have this sinking feeling that Monsanto will only make the situation worse? Big Ag does not come up with sustainable answers - it comes up with products posing as answers, and these products inevitably cause more problems.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 11:32 AM, NDimensionalDino wrote:

    Once they successfully modify the bees DNA, they intend to patent them and charge everybody a fee for bee pollination and sue to collect for 'inadvertent' or 'unwanted' pollination. If you want your plants pollinated, you'll have to pay Monsanto.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 12:53 PM, DrKND wrote:

    With their track record of destruction, I'm guessing that anything Monsanto and their ilk do at this point is either too little too late or it will be even more disruptive to the ecosystem than what they've already done. These unethical and immoral companies are driven by greed and the desire for control, and they've been conducting open air experiments on our food supply without our consent and without proper controls (because their arrogance is as relentless as their greed) for two decades. At last they are being found out, and so we are seeing more of these hype pieces on the Fool, promoting the 'good' of Monsanto rather than telling the truth about the evil. We are not deceived. 90% of Americans want their products labeled so they can STOP BUYING FOODS CONTAINING THEM! Biotech pretty much owns our government now, so the only thing that will slow them down is we the people.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 3:31 PM, ShaylaStriffler wrote:

    So instead of eliminating the toxin that is harmful to bees, Monsanto's solution is to give us FrankenBees.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 9:16 PM, klondykekat wrote:

    they are worried about honey bees? what about all the humans they are killing with their herbicides and pesticides? i guess humans are not as important as honey bees.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 11:05 PM, tarchon wrote:

    I agree with Acmeman. That's a fly, a pollinating fly, but a fly nonetheless.

    @Entheogenius - Roundup is a herbicide, not an insecticide. It's not particularly toxic to bees, though obviously you don't spray it on them if you can help it.

    I would be skeptical that this will really increase bee populations much, but it's worth a try anyway.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 11:52 AM, getthefacts4 wrote:

    Bee populations are full of parasites and the RNAi way is a very safe way to specifical kill the parasites. Shayla - there is no toxin that Monsanto sells that is toxic to bees. Please educate yourself and get the facts straight

    Thank you Fool for a reasonable article

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 12:01 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    The author writes:

    A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids -- along with several genetically modified plant varieties engineered to produce such compounds -- have been widely viewed as the biggest culprit.


    No GMO crop has been "engineered" to produce any neonicotinoids.

    Are you friggin KIDDING ME?

    GMO plants are not at all toxic to bees.

    More to the point, our bee keepers DON'T rent out their hives to ANY of the large ag crops which are GMO.

    Indeed, bees are not needed to pollinate any of the big agricultural crops.

    These are in fact the approx number of bee hive rentals in 1989 and 1999

    Almond 650,000 950,000

    apple 250,000 275,000

    melons 250,000 300,000

    plum/prune 145,000 160,000

    blueberry 75,000 110,000

    cherry 70,000 70,000

    vegetable seeds 50,000 55,000

    pear 50,000 50,000

    cucumber 40,000 45,000

    sunflower 40,000 45,000

    cranberry 30,000 45,000

    kiwi 15,000 15,000

    others 50,000 55,000

    And NONE of those are GMO crops.

    LIES, that's all the friggin press is good for now a days, is spreading LIES

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 1:15 PM, tarchon wrote:

    Bt corn could potentially be toxic to bees, but they don't generally take corn pollen, so it's not much of an issue. And that is true that Bt isn't a neonicotinoid. If anything, Bt corn is probably more of a net benefit to bee populations because it decreases the need for spraying insecticides (including neonicitinoids) which they can be exposed to inadvertently.

    It would be correct though to say that some researchers have found evidence that neonicitinoids have been behind bee losses, but I'm personally not totally convinced. The "multiple cause" explanations seem a lot more reasonable. If you look at the history of neonicitinoids, there isn't a clear downturn in bee populations corresponding to the growth of their use. Imidacloprid, the most popular one, wasn't approved in the US until 1994, and the decline in the US started in 1991. A lot of people cite the year as 1992 for imidacloprid, but that's really the year the registration was applied for. It's pretty hard to see how imidacloprid could have been killing bees on a large scale 3 years before it came into wide commercial use.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 2:15 PM, tarchon wrote:

    This is USGS' history and map of imidacloprid use (starting in 1994).

    Does this look like it has any correlation at all to the bee colony count?

    This wild goose chase after neonicotinoids isn't going to solve the problem, though I have to agree that the media have overblown its seriousness anyway.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 3:51 PM, beelover111 wrote:

    Corporations exist to make a profit. They are not interested in "saving" the bees.

    And yes, bee populations are in decline. This story obviously is interested in corporate interests more than facts.

  • Report this Comment On February 27, 2014, at 5:32 AM, rjs wrote:

    the chart of colonies must be just the commercial beekeepers who report to the USDA...40 years ago the woods were full of wild colonies - one could find them in winter by the droppings on the there are none in the wild..

  • Report this Comment On March 14, 2014, at 8:38 AM, kenudy wrote:

    Interesting....The chart you provided on the decline of the honeybees parallels

    the growth of GMO's and increased pesticide use from their early inception in the 1990's to now.

    Humans are experiencing huge increases in Autoimmune Disease especially IBD and inflammatory disease of the intestines which one recent Science Daily report cited a 71% increase in American children with the disease since the year 2000.

    When do our children get studied with the same intennsity as the honeybees?

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Maxx Chatsko

Maxx has been a contributor to since 2013. He's currently a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University merging synthetic biology with materials science & engineering. His primary coverage for TMF includes renewable energy, renewable fuels, and synthetic biology. Follow him on Twitter to keep pace with developments with engineering biology.

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