Can biotech save the bees?

Between the buzzing and the painful stings, one might argue that bees can be annoying. But to put it simply: if bees go extinct, our well-being and livelihoods would be under major threat.

As pollinators, bees – in addition to butterflies, hummingbirds, and bats – are crucial for the planet and the entire ecosystem. However, human activities and climate change have been making it hard for them to do their jobs.

Since 2006, beekeepers have reported a decrease of bee colonies between 30%-60%, said Rachel King, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). Some of the culprits include parasites, pathogens, and climate change.

King spoke on the newest episode of the I am BIO Podcast, We need bees. Bees need biotech.

“I’m really hopeful about the potential for science, biotech,” said Kelly Bills, Executive Director of Pollinator Partnership, which promotes the health of pollinators (like bees).

“There’s some really cool research happening and really cool innovations in terms of how to fight some of the pests and pathogens that are impacting bees,” she explained.

What’s the buzz on bees?

Bee colonies often get infested by Varroa mites, also known as Varroa destructor (or V. jacobsoni). These small, external parasites cripple bees, impairing their flight performance, which results in low rates after foraging in addition to a shorter lifespan.

The American foulbrood is another threat that interferes with bees, affecting as much as 50% of the global bee population. Similarly to Varroa mites, foulbroods are also known to weaken and kill bee colonies.

But humans are to blame, too. The UN Environment Programme reported that air pollution, as well as “habitat loss, intensive farming practices, changes in weather patterns, and the excessive use of agrochemicals such as pesticides” drive the decline of honey bee populations.

How biotech can help bees

To battle mites, GreenLight Biosciences CEO Andrey Zarur says the company is using RNA, “the oldest biomolecule in our planet…the origin of life.”

“The beauty of the RNA solution is we can design it to target specifically the genome of the Varroa mite and minimize any kind of collateral damage,” Zarur explained on the podcast. GreenLight awaits Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval.

According to Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health, what was once impossible is now a revolutionary innovation. Kleiser’s company recently discovered that even insects have immune systems – leading them to develop an effective vaccine to fight foulbrood disease. Dalan’s bee vaccine is the first ever to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Biotech may save bees, “one of the many ways that modern biotech is making revolutionary gains to improve the health of people and our planet,” concludes King.

Listen to the whole episode:

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