Bees, Honey and Genetically Modified Crops

Original on Friends of Earth


Bees are extremely important to the pollination of UK crops, particularly oilseed rape and beans. In the UK there are estimated to be between 100,000 and 300,000 hives1, working out at one hive per square kilometre. A hive may contain up to 50,000 bees and individual bees may visit up to 100 flowers on each trip out from the hive. The value of honey bees’ services as pollinators in the European Union has been estimated at around £3 billion per year2.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are very near to being grown commercially. GM maize and oilseed rape varieties are in the last stages of the regulatory procedure which will allow them to be grown anywhere in the UK. A farming industry organisation, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) has developed guidelines for farmers growing GM crops. But there are no provisions within these for protecting beehives from contamination with GM pollen, or even to inform beekeepers if GM crops are to be grown in their area.

In 1999 the Government started a series of ‘farm-scale trials’ of GM herbicide-tolerant crops. Each of these GM crop trials covers ten hectares (25 acres) and it is planned to have at least 25 sites for each GM crop involved – winter and spring oilseed rape, maize and sugar beet. These trials are meant to examine the environmental effects of GM crops, but they have not been designed to prevent pollen escaping from the test sites or to protect nearby beekeepers from contamination of their honey.

GM Crops

Oilseed rape is an extremely important crop for bees and beekeepers. It is the crop to which commercial hives are most often moved3, and pollination contracts for oilseed rape provide an important source of income to many beekeepers. It is very attractive to bees, and has ‘sticky’ pollen, which the bees can get covered in. Most GM oilseed rape in the UK has been engineered to resist herbicides.

GM maize is also close to commercial production and being growing at farm-scale trials. Bees collect pollen for food and in the US it has been found that pollen from maize fields can make up to 20 per cent of the total collected by bees from nearby hives4.

Is GM Honey safe?

Genetic engineering is imprecise and unpredictable. Genes are inserted from organisms which have never been eaten as food, and so new proteins are introduced into the human and animal food chains. There is concern that these could cause allergic reactions or other health effects.

A study by Government researchers found that there are between 20,000 and 80,000 pollen grains in a portion (10g) of shop-bought honey5. There are already cases of people who are allergic to honey, and this has been linked to pollen in the honey6. The novel proteins or toxins produced by GM crops may also be in the pollen they produce. This means that honey containing GM pollen could pose a potential health risk. The researchers who studied this problem concluded that if GM pollen contained novel toxins or proteins it “could pose problems, not only to man who consumes honey as a food, but also to bee populations which rely on pollen as the sole source of protein”7.

As well as this, research into honey has found that bees can pass proteins from nectar unchanged into honey8. If GM crops produce novel proteins or toxins in the nectar as well, this may further threaten the safety of honey produced from GM crops.

GM plants may also contain genes which provide resistance to commonly used antibiotics such as ampicillin. There is concern that these could be passed on to the bacteria that live in humans and animals. DNA from pollen has been found to be able to survive in honey for seven weeks9. It may be that this could be a route for such gene transfer.

In spite of the risks, there has been almost no safety testing of GM pollen, either for humans or for bees. Even the food safety tests of GM crops have been limited to short-term tests on animals. The Government’s advisors on the safety of GM foods rely on results of tests conducted by the GM companies themselves. Recently Dr Andrew Chesson, a leading food scientist from the Rowett Research Institute, expressed concern that current safety tests may be insufficient to detect new, unexpected chemicals in GM foods10. Although the Government is conducting its own independent research into GM food safety, the results will not be ready until 2001.

Bees and gene pollution

Honey bees commonly forage up to two km from the hive, but oilseed rape fields are such an attractive source of nectar that bees may travel at least five km to get to them11. In a recent study, a bee hive was placed 800 m from a field of GM oilseed rape. When the oilseed rape was in flower, it made up 70% of the pollen that the bees carried back to the hive. One bee returning to the hive had 60,000 oilseed rape pollen grains stuck to its body12. As the bees brush past each other in the hive any GM pollen is spread throughout the colony and taken out again by other bees.

In summer 1999, Friends of the Earth commissioned research to study this issue. The researchers put pollen samplers on the entrances to beehives around a ten hectare farm scale test site of GM oilseed rape. The pollen samplers measured how much pollen the bees were carrying into the hive. The bee hives were 150m, 2.5 km and 4.5 km away from the test site. GM pollen was found in all the samples from the different beehives, including the one furthest away. The results show that even if a beehive is 4.5 km from a field of GM oilseed rape, the honey can still become contaminated with GM pollen. This has serious implications for all beekeepers.

Not only are bee hives near to GM oilseed rape fields likely to become contaminated with GM pollen, but the bees may spread GM pollen to non-GM crops several miles away. It is likely that in the future farmers will be growing oilseed rape for the ‘GM-free’ market. In such cases, contamination of the crop could cause financial loss to the farmer. At the moment it is unclear who would be held liable for this, and whether the beekeeper might be held responsible as well as the farmer who grows the GM crop.

Impact on Beekeepers

At the moment, companies or farmers planting GM crops do not have to consult with neighbouring beekeepers, or even tell them that there is a GM crop nearby. Even if the beekeeper finds out that there is a GM crop nearby, it is up to them to test their honey for contamination. Because of this, it is very possible that beekeepers have already unwittingly sold GM honey to the public.

The former Food Safety Minister Jeff Rooker stated that honey containing GM pollen would have to be labelled before being sold13. But this only applies to honey containing pollen from GM crops which have gained permission to be sold as food. GM test sites, including at present the farm-scale trials of GM oilseed rape, grow GM crops which have not yet got such permission. In these cases, the law states that any GM material from them cannot be sold in food, including GM pollen. This means that if honey becomes contaminated with pollen from a test site or the farm-scale trials it could be illegal to sell it.

As it stands, GM crops pose a serious threat to beekeepers and honey production in the UK. Honey contaminated with GM pollen will either have to be disposed of safely or sold as a GM product. Either of these options is likely to cause financial harm to beekeepers. Despite this, there is no system to ensure that beekeepers are consulted about GM crops growing nearby nor are there any provisions for compensation in the event of financial losses which might result.

Impact on Wild Bees

Wild bees are vital for the survival of many of our wild plants, as well as being important for crops. Some species of wild plants are dependent on wild bees for their pollination and survival. Several species of bumblebees and solitary bees are also important pollinators for food crops.

Bumblebees are very important in the UK, as they fly around at lower temperatures and in worse weather than honeybees. In addition, bumblebees are best able to pollinate some wild flowers, such as foxgloves. Natural populations of bumblebees are in decline in the UK and across the EU. Solitary bees are bees that live on their own, rather than in hives or nests. There are several hundred species across Europe, but very little is known about them apart from the fact that, like bumblebees, they are in decline.

The decline of bumblebees and solitary bee populations has been linked to modern intensive farming 14. The widespread use of herbicides and the increased intensity of farming has removed the habitats that wild bees make nests in, and reduced the numbers of wild plants which they use for food. There is concern that the introduction of GM herbicide tolerant crops, such as oilseed rape, will reduce still further the diversity and number of wild plants found in UK farmland. Such concerns have been expressed by English Nature, the Government’s own wildlife advisor, as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts. The widespread use of GM herbicide-tolerant crops is likely to threaten further wild bee populations.


It is clear that growing GM crops in the UK will pose a serious threat to beekeepers and honey production in the UK. Issues around food safety, liability, the cost to beekeepers and the threat to wild bee populations have yet to be resolved. Vital questions need to be answered and there needs to be a full public debate on the acceptable uses of genetic engineering.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) is opposed to the untested introduction of GM crops and foods in the UK. We are campaigning against outdoor testing of GM crops, including the farm scale trials. FOE is calling for a full public debate on the future of farming and how our food is produced. A moratorium, or freeze, on the commercial production and importation of GM food and crops is now urgently required.

Emily Diamand, September 1999

The Real Food Campaign
Friends of the Earth
26-28, Underwood Street
N1  7JQ
Tel 020 7490 1555
Fax 020 7490 0881
Email –
Website –

1. Williams, I. 1994. “Dependence on Crop Production within the European Union on pollination by honey bees” Agricultural Zoological Review Vol 6 pp 229-257

2.Carreck, NL. Pollination Ecology Research at IACR-Rothamsted

3.Williamson, I. 1996 “Aspects of bee diversity and crop pollination in the European Union” in A Matheson, SL Buchmann, C O’Toole, P Westrich and I Williams (eds) The Conservation of Bees Academic Press.

4.Erickson, EH, Erickson BH, Flottum PK, Wyman JA, Wedberg JL & Page RE. 1997. “Effects of selected insecticide formulations, phased applications and colony management strategies on honey bee mortality in processing sweetcorn” Journal of Apical Research 36(1) pp 3-13

5.MAFF Research & Development and Surveillance Report: 376. Undated. Honey from genetically modified plants: integrity of DNA and entry of GM-derived proteins into the food chain via honey MAFF project No 2B 067

6.Bauer, L et al. 1996 “Food allergy to honey: Pollen or bee products? Characterisation of allergenic proteins in honey by means of immunoblotting” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Vol 97 1(1) pp 65-73

7.Wilkinson, JE, D Twell and K Lindsey. 1997 “Activities of CaMV 35S and nos promoters in pollen: implications for field release of transgenic plants” Journal of Experimental Botany Vol 48 (307) pp 265-275

8.Coghlan, A. 1999 “Healing Honey: flowers are being turned into vaccine factories” New Scientist 23 June 1999

9. Eady, C, D Twell & K Lindsey. 1995 “ Pollen viability and trans-gene expression following storage in honey” Transgenic Research Vol 4 pp 226-231

10. Daily Express, 4 September 1999. “New GM warning over danger chemicals entering food chain”

11.Ramsay, G, CE Thompson, S Neilson, GR Mackay, 1999. “Honeybees as vectors of GM oilseed rape pollen” in Gene Flow and agriculture: relevance for transgenic crops BCPC Symposium Proceedings No 72 pp 209-214


13.Rooker, J. House of Commons Hansard Written Answers 15 April 1999 (Part 6) Col 321

14. Williamson, I. 1996 “Aspects of bee diversity and crop pollination in the European Union” in A Matheson, SL Buchmann, C O’Toole, P Westrich and I Williams (eds) The Conservation of Bees pp 63-80 Academic Press

Contact details:

Friends of the Earth
26-28 Underwood St.
N1  7JQ

Tel: 020 7490 1555
Fax: 020 7490 0881



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