Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor – May 2018

- May 1, 2018 -

beekeeper with frame of bees

I felt the need to share a picture I took. The man in the picture is Santos Alonso. As a child he started keeping bees with his father in Mexico. Eventually he came to California and found himself keeping bees for a company in Stanislaus County. Soon after, he decided to start his own business and in three years he has successfully grown it into a thriving business.

As I have gotten to know other beekeepers in our area they all say the same thing to me: Santos knows bees and if you have a question or problem he’s the guy to talk to. Now that I have worked alongside Santos I concur with what the local guys say. He is like a local bee whisperer, he just knows bees.

I feel fortunate to know this man. There is nothing he won’t do to help another beekeeper out. As I am a new beekeeper, he has become my mentor and support system as I begin my journey.

The picture is a small example of his hard work, determination, and inherent sense of bees. This apiary was bursting at the seams coming out of winter and just before being rented out. In between the top and bottom frames drone comb was thick and full of larvae. Brood comb was almost taking up whole frames in every hive he had at this location.

Enough rambling, I hope you enjoy the picture. Thank you for your hard work producing the journal. I love reading it!

Genetically Engineered Honey Bee

Dear Alison-

I read your recent article “What happened to the genetically engineered honey bee?” in the March 2018 edition of the American Bee Journal with great interest.  While the processes appear meticulous and somewhat tedious, I agree that their perfection could lead to greater honey bee health.  We need help combating Varroa, viruses, non-hygienic behavior, suboptimal temperament etc.

As a beekeeper and biomedical engineer, while I understand the majority of processes involved in the genetic engineering that you described so well, I am wondering about your opinion on the measurement and testing of side effects that may occur.  For example, we improve Varroa resistance, but negatively affect honey production.  Or, we improve hygienic behavior and temperament, but somehow make honey bees more susceptible to vectored viruses. I would appreciate your thoughts on how we control for unintended consequences while optimizing the positive outcomes.

Best regards,


Ali McAfee’s response

Hi Jason,

That’s a great question. First, I want to reiterate that we are a long way off from actually implementing any sort of engineered honey bee in industry. But some research groups (not us) are indeed working toward that aim, so it is a good time to discuss the implications.

There is no precise formula for measuring and testing for potential unintended consequences. However, whatever happens, it should include the following elements: 1) a large-scale field trial, 2) isolation, 3) a mechanism for termination, and 4) testing key trait interactions.

Some of this is akin to the field trials for genetically engineered mosquitoes which I discussed in the article – for example, Oxitec conducted some of their first large-scale field trials in the Cayman Islands. Having a large scale (in this case, maybe several hundred engineered colonies, as an estimate) is important because we would want to be able to observe rare – but potentially problematic – effects, in addition to the usual ‘statistically significant’ results that scientists are after.

Islands are some of the easiest places to control populations of organisms, since it’s easy to monitor and dictate who comes and goes. We do most of our selective honey bee breeding on an island for a similar reason (so we can control not only the queens but the drone sources during mating). An added benefit of doing field trials on an island is for damage control: if something goes wrong, the issue is isolated to the island and not to, e.g., a whole continent.

But doing field trials on islands is only part of the equation, as far as damage control goes. Responsible researchers should also have an action plan for how to terminate the experiment, even in an isolated location. Sticking with the island example, this could look like removing all honey bee colonies from the island prior to the experiment, then destroying project colonies upon termination and bringing the original colonies back in. If the original honey bee colonies can’t be removed, the experiment could include a genetic marker that, upon experiment termination, could be used to screen all the island’s non-project colonies to flag those that managed to interbreed for removal. Finally, simple mechanical devices could prevent interbreeding in the first place, such as a simple drone guard. I’m sure there are many other, more imaginative controlled termination methods, but basically, there has to be a plan.

Finally, we would probably want to test a few key trait interactions, such as the ones you suggest (e.g., aspects of innate immunity and social immunity, honey production, gentleness, pollination efficiency, etc.). A typical experimental design could be to compare the performance of conventional colonies from a common import source (e.g. NZ), conventional colonies from a local source, and the engineered colonies. The colonies in each group could be challenged with different diseases, hive management practices, or pollination efficiency for common crops to see if one group outperforms another. We used a very similar experimental design when testing if our selective breeding efforts for hygienic behavior, Varroa-sensitive hygiene, and grooming had undesirable effects on honey production1 (they didn’t).

In reality, there are so many characteristics to test, it would be hard to know where to stop – this would (unsurprisingly) be dictated by the amount of time and money available, as well as regulatory guidelines (if they exist by then), and, effectively, how much evidence is needed to convincingly show that the technology is a good or bad idea.

If there are unintended consequences of the genetic engineering, not all of them will necessarily be deal-breakers; for instance, if ….