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Genetically-Modified Honey Bees: A Key Technology for Honey Bee Research

Photo by Alexander Wild.

By David O’Brochta

A breakthrough in the efforts to genetically modify honey bees was recently reported by Christina Schulte and colleagues from Heinrich Heine University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Schulte et al. reported the creation of a honey bee containing a “foreign” gene — in this case, one that made some of the cells in the bee glow. This is a first in bee research. These researchers did not establish a colony of genetically-modified bees; they only showed that genetically-manipulated queens could produce genetically-modified drones in the lab. It was a proof of concept.

We have known the genome sequence of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, since 2006. The bee genome helps bee biologists learn how honey bees tick, and it has already provided insights. The genome is rich in genes associated with smell, but it has relatively fewer genes associated with taste and immune functions, reflecting evolutionary adaptations associated with their unique lifestyle.

Using genetic technologies in the laboratory to actually manipulate the bee genome in living bees will lead to deeper insights, such as how they fight infections like foul brood disease or parasites like Varroa mites, as well as the genetic basis for bee behavior.

Imagine you know a little bit about cars and you want to figure out what makes them run. A manual is available, but it’s in some kind of code. One approach would be to take a hammer and, starting with one part at a time, break things and then see how the “mutated” car functions.

“Oh look, now it doesn’t start — that must be a starter thingy,” you might deduce.

“Now all the lights and the radio don’t work — that must be an electrical thingamabob.”

And so on. Pretty soon you would know a lot about how the car works and the role of many of its parts, and the coded manual would make more sense too.

This is pretty much how geneticists might approach the problem of understanding how bees function. Geneticists would not use a hammer, but they would use genetic technologies to manipulate the genome of living bees to see how those alterations affected the organism.

Today there are many technologies that enable scientists to insert genes into chromosomes. In the case of bees, applying those technologies has proven very difficult. This is because insect-genome-modification technologies require physically injecting these technologies (usually bits of DNA) into honey bee eggs, having the eggs hatch and develop into fertile queens, and then getting the queens to reproduce. However, bees do not like having their eggs injected.

The key to Schulte et al.’s success was their innovative approaches to manipulating and controlling bee reproduction and behavior in the laboratory so they could successfully inject their eggs. They have forged an important path that others can follow, albeit a challenging one.

Just as the human genome enables human biology to be understood for the purposes of developing therapeutics and solutions to unwanted conditions, these results represent the beginning of a similar phase of bee research.

Read more at:

Transgenic Honeybees – Finally!

Highly efficient integration and expression of piggyBac-derived cassettes in the honeybee (Apis mellifera)


David O’Brochta

David O’Brochta is the director of the Insect Genetic Technology Research Coordination Network (IGTRCN) and is a professor in the Department of Entomology and the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has an active research laboratory focused on insect genetics and molecular genetics with interests in the development of insect genetic technologies and their application to the study of the physiological genetics of mosquitoes, with particular interest in their disease-vector capabilities. Professor O’Brochta teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels, is the Head of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research’s Insect Transformation Facility, and he is the editor of the Royal Entomological Society’s journal Insect Molecular Biology.


  1. Complete and utter stupidity…no wonder pollinators are in the failing condition we put them in!!!

  2. If genetically modified crops are supposed to be so bad, why are genetically modified insects supposed to be okay? If you can’t learn from observing something, you’re going to tinker with its construction? ‘Playing God’ is bad enough. You’re playing ‘stupid god.’

    • I’m a beekeeper who is trying to spread what I call bee awareness in order to help the honey bee and I totally agree with you mam!!! They have gotten this far without any modifications they can get even farther im sure. We just need to stop acting like a cancer on the earth by not ruining the environment and using poisons that kill them and I think they should be just fine. Just saying…

      • I absolutely agree. Nature is perfect. We can not make anything better… the car example is so immature…. the bee is a perfect creation…. it does not need fixing or modifying…. the car is a human creation and it is a perfect example how bad our creation is…(constant upkeep, fixing, deadly, shortlived….)…

    • They need to research and genetically modify the Killer Bee strain to convert it back to a more passive strain. Too many good animals and humans are being killed by these noxious pests.

      • Do you realize that Africanized honeybees (AHB) have already indeed become more docile since their arrival to North America? Saying we need to genetically modify a bee, that is actually a higher life form than the current Euro honeybee, is total stupidity. When left to nature, bees and all other life forms eventually adapt to all the hideous things humans have unleashed on this planet. Globalization has spread varroa mites and AHB, which means human error brought all the problems honeybees currently face INCLUDING loss of habitat and the massive use and abuse of pesticides and all other harmful chemicals that are literally destroying life on earth as we currently know it!!!!

  3. Bill, Darkes, and Dorothy — While we understand your concern, you may be missing the point of this article. The bees here are for research purposes only, in order to study the bees and their biology. They are NOT meant to be released into the wild. Below is a response from the author.


    Response from David O’Brochta:

    No one has suggested that genetically modified-honeybees be released into the environment. That is a terrible idea.

    The bees mentioned here are PURELY for research purposes so that we can better understand honey bee biology and learn ways to make them more healthy in the future.

    Doing all we can to address the root causes of the crisis clearly is essential not only for economic reasons but moral reasons as well.

    The technology described by Schulte et al (2014) in their research report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides a portal into the biology of honeybees.

    I think the analogy I make at the end of the article is valuable to reconsider. Let me expand on it slightly.

    The determination of the genome sequence of humans was hailed as a milestone in medicine’s quest to understand the human body and the diseases and maladies it suffers. Advanced genetic technologies are helping medical researchers unlock the secrets of the human genome and this knowledge is making its way into the clinic. We are healthier today because of this research.

    The determination of the genome of the honeybee was greeted with similar enthusiasm by many and for the same reasons. The technology Schulte et al. describe will be used in the laboratory to understand the honeybee genome. It will help us understand exactly how our current abuses of this critical pollinator affect the inner workings of the bee. It will help understand what is happening to the bee when it gets sick.

    It is the importance of the honeybees and other pollinators that is driving research into all aspects of their biology. We need to understand what it means for a honey bee to get sick. We need to know what it means for a honey bee to be healthy so we know when we are doing things that are making it sick. We need to apply the full force of modern biological and biomedical research to this critical problem and Schulte’s work will help.

    David O’Brochta

  4. But aren’t the wild bees already producing ”modified” honey from the modified crops that have alredy poluted the natural flora near them?Is it impossible for the inseckts collecting modified pollen to get somehow their own mutations because of them?The whole fauna depends and lives from the flora and i guess it won’t be long till the whole word will become a monstrosity thanks to modern biotechnology that is making people’s life better and better and better.For the sake of humanity sacrifices must me made,even if the final sacrifice is humanity itself

  5. It is not correct to say that “They have gotten this far without any modifications …”. On the contrary, bees, humans and every other living organism continue to undergo modifications that allow these populations to survive in the current environment. From the dawn of agriculture, humans have modified plants and animals to raise crops and farm animals to suit their needs and to be successfully cultivated in the environment. So, before trying to say humans have not modified things just stop and look around.

    The intensive use of insulin to treat diabetes and to keep up with the increasing demand, genetically modified bacteria are used to produce the human insulin. We continue to develop and experience the benefits of vaccines which is a less virulent form of the disease causing virus that is injected into the body of the healthy human or animal.

    So when there are so many positive examples of modification and we humans have been able to get this far because of all the modifications, why can we not use the same principles to save organisms that are facing threat in this environment. Left to natural selection the bees may survive the impediments except that it is going to take a very very long time. By using these new technologies we are only making these changes quicker. A genotype that has the genes to survive in an environment with new challenges will be favored by the environment. So, if humans an facilitate the development of such a genotype, then why not? No one is playing god here.

  6. Before the advent of molecular biology and genetic engineering in laboratories humans had never previously modified any creature or plant genome – the code responsible for producing the building blocks for its form and how each part functioned. Our ancestors migrated from the savannahs and grasslands living a nomadic lifestyle, to domesticate plants and animals for our use in more settled agricultural societies (up to modern day). Before humans even understood what genes were, there was a tradition of “selectively breeding” for the best traits seen in crops and herds. The biggest cattle, the wheat with the biggest ears and smallest husks etc. There was no manipulation of genes at a cellular level. Selective breeding which enhances these particular valued (by humans) traits or characteristics as seen by the eye, could never manipulate the DNA of the genome at a microscopic cellular level. Let alone introduce a genetic piece of information from one organism to another completely unrelated organism. The waters are muddied every time someone confuses the terminology of selective breeding and genetic modification. Science can provide interesting solutions to complex questions. But we need to be clear on what the goals of the science are, and ask the question who will use the technology, and to what end? Will the most in need benefit? And will there be choices involved…

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