• Josh Bond

Can public attitudes to CRISPR technologies save declining Bee populations post Covid-19?

The reality of the matter is that the summer of 2020 is far from what we all imagined it would be. We have all spent a lot of time inside, which has led a lot of people to reflect on what we can do differently when life begins to return to ‘normal’. Lockdown drew attention to many ecological and environmental benefits as a result of the lack of human activity. It appears to have made us realise that our species may in fact be the problem after all. The media has shown us cities with dramatically less air pollution, litter-less beaches and the revival of certain marine ecosystems. All of which asks the question of ‘what can we do differently when this is over’?

However, it does not appear to be that simple as the relationships between humans and the world we live in appear very complex. During the onset of Covid-19, a Financial Times article linked a decline in farmed bee populations caused by a lack of human transport to the serious knock-on effects on worldwide agriculture. One bee farmer stated “A third of our food depends on the pollination of bees. The production of those crops could be affected”.

However, another article infers that due to lack of human activities, roadsides and wildflowers have never seen a better summer, and subsequently that wild bee populations will soar. This raises the point that the health and prevalence of specific species are influenced by their level of human dependency. With numerous examples showing that a reduction in human interference can cause massive benefits to their populations.

This would infer that for all species to recover to their full potential, humans should spend all of their lives in lockdown. This is inherently a ridiculous request, but maybe we should start to use our influence positively rather than negatively.

One source appears to agree with this sentiment by saying that a post Covid-19 world should see the benefits that the absence of human activity can cause, and therefore could reignite the efforts to save it, that are so often ignored.

Honeybees are essential pollinators, and it is known that their decline can have a huge impact on humans. Therefore, one such insurgence could be to act on factors that are causing bee declines worldwide, such as the invasive hornet species. Positive human interference in this way could manifest in the form of gene-editing techniques to control the increasing prevalence of invasive hornet species that feed off honeybee larvae, decimating colonies. In Japan, these Murder Hornets also cause the deaths of over 30 people annually. This species is highly prevalent in North-western USA and Canada, whose native honeybees haven’t yet evolved a method to repel the invading species [3].

Scientists are theorising that the use of CRISPR technologies in a methodology called Gene Drive, can be used to modify the prevalence of genes within these Murder Hornets populations; in essence stopping their ability to invade bee nests. This technology is not without its own limitations and ethical considerations but has the potential to spark a movement of altering gene populations for the betterment of the planet.

CRISPR technologies have gained good public perception in their use to fight Covid-19 by its implementation as a rapid diagnostic test. The nature of CRISPR allowed the test to be developed very quickly itself, and its use has no doubt saved countless lives. 

Gene-editing technologies so often become entangled in red tape due to public perception and regulatory bodies; the hope for scientific communities is that a post Covid-19 world will have witnessed the benefits of using CRISPR technologies to fight the virus, and therefore look to become more accepting of gene-editing techniques to solve additional humanitarian problems. As well as the insurgence of public support for more sustainable practices due to the very literal visual displays offered by a Covid-19 threatened world.

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