The dramatic decline in biodiversity in the last few decades is challenging not only the survival of particular species, but it also includes significant risks for the balance of ecosystems. The case of pollinators is particularly challenging, given their importance for the reproduction of some flowering plants. In short, fewer pollinators means a decrease in food availability for other wildlife. Besides, a large portion of our agriculture also depends on animal pollination, of which bees are an essential part. Researchers and projects around the world are trying to tackle this issue from different perspectives. For IoBee, a possible answer lies in information. In this entry, we will contrast the objectives of our project with some different approaches which are discussed in a recent emission by BBC Sounds (1), particularly, genetically modified bees.
Honeybee loss in several countries with industrialised agriculture has skyrocketed from 15-20% to up to 50% according to Dr Jay Evans, head of the Bee Research Laboratory. The situation is increasingly difficult to manage, mainly because of the multifactorial risks that bees face. We see a loss of habitat with a steep decline in hay meadows, paired with an increase of pesticides use. Besides, bees are more exposed to diseases and pests that humans have unintentionally moved around the globe. The situation calls for solutions, particularly considering the vital role of bees. Additionally, by improving conditions for bees, we would, in consequence, be improving general conditions on the environment. But the complexity of the situation makes it particularly hard to react, opening the possibilities for new ideas.
Factors such as monocultures and intensive pesticide use are known to be one of the key factors in the decline of bee health (2)
A proposal that has been expanding in the last few years is the creation of genetically modified bees. The idea is to have a more resistant bee. For this, researchers in the US are collecting and storing bee sperm from around the world. Selective breeding programs aiming to create bees that are better suited to resist disease or toxic substances are a reality. In 2016, researchers from the University of Dusseldorf created the first genetically modified honeybee. This new breed later came to be popularised as the “frankenbee”. However, the process is particularly challenging and slow. To identify eugenic behaviours (behaviour linked to its genetic code) is no easy task. In the case of the team in Dusseldorf, they identified over 400 genes which may relate to honeybees whose brood selection abilities avoid disease spreading in the colony. But the uncertainty remains, and a new resistant honeybee is still not a reality.
The focus on genetics is, nevertheless, not restricted to gene editing. It is more involved in the understanding of the honeybee genome, which was first published in 2006. But, even if all efforts pointed towards a genetically modified bee, its actual realisation might involve more risks than solutions. The problems, as assured by beekeeping associations such as BeeLife or the professional beekeepers in Europe (EPBA), are to be taken seriously (3). Unchaining a “superbee” in the wild is particularly problematic for beekeepers, who see it as a possible threat to the more conventional bees. Besides, not only honeybees would be in peril, wild bees and other pollinators could be severely affected.
The risks from a genetically modified bee lead beekeepers astray from the idea. Besides, another aspect also helps to point towards a different direction. Genetically modifying the struggling bee because of the stressors in the environment means leaving aside the conditions that harm them in the first place. Environmentalists insist that authorities must instead focus on the problematic circumstances that humans create through intensive agriculture, urbanisation and involuntary pest and disease transportation. Since these conditions not only affect bees but wildlife in general, the argument is that improving them would be better than introducing a more resistant bee.
The challenges that bees currently face seem to require a different approach. Beyond the difficulties to create a “superbee”, its release into nature remains highly controversial. Without the support of the population, particularly of beekeepers, it would be hard to back a plan based on eugenics. Therefore, another less controversial strategy seems to be more promising.
The creation and spread of genetically modified bees, besides challenging, poses other dilemmas that beekeepers protest.
One of the future options is improving field monitoring. Thanks to technological developments, it is possible to measure more accurately the conditions that are harmful to bees. This is part of the rationale of IoBee. Better monitoring for a better understanding, thus calling for more targeted actions by beekeepers, associations, researchers and policymakers. IoBee responds to a different logic than the one of changing the bees. Instead, it bets on a better understanding of bees and their relation to their environment.
IoBee is applying digital monitoring and satellite mapping to value the role that bees have and the importance of understanding surrounding conditions. By gathering data from beehives around Europe, several players become key agents of change for improving conditions in the environment. Initially, each beekeeper who digitally monitors his or her hives has a valuable tool for managing and better taking care of honeybees. Such efforts directly help local bees. Then, by sharing and compiling the information along with other beekeepers through national or regional platforms of collaboration such as beekeeping associations, they can better study the challenges that bees face. Armed with valuable information regarding bees and their performance, they can work in collaboration with authorities and researchers to improve environmental conditions. Lastly, policymakers who are looking for ways to measure the impact of legislation and ways to protect nature and citizens should be interested in these results.
The work to protect bees may take many forms. Some seem to be more promising than others, not only for their feasibility but for their acceptance and underlying rationale. Within diversity, IoBee answers the requirements to focus on the environment. The Internet of Bees advances towards providing a helpful method in helping bees through better information.