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Dear Evil Engineer: How can I earn renown by killing all of those pesky bumblebees?

Image credit: Dreamstime

This envious wasp has taken umbrage against bumblebees... so much so that it’s looking to take out the entire species.

Bee illustration, caught in crosshairs

E&T Magazine

Image credit: E&T Magazine

Dear Evil Engineer

My villainous schemes have always been modest; I am an expert in making children cry, home invasions, and mobbing family picnics with my gang. Since entering middle age, I have set my sights on more ambitious schemes. I hate everything about bumblebees – from their cute fuzzy hides to their good PR – and I am no longer content with merely raiding their hives and feeding them to our spawn. How could I kill them all?

Yours,

A wasp

 

Dear Villain,

I’m afraid to say that, as a wasp, your options are limited when it comes to killing all of the bumblebees. You are likely to have perished by the time this correspondence is printed and delivered to your nest. However, given that you transcended the limits of your boneless, bean-sized body in order to write to me seeking my advice, I feel inclined to provide a sincere response.
Bumblebees are among the most nauseating do-gooders of the insect world, and I empathise with your eagerness to depose your rivals. You may be glad to hear that bumblebees are already having a difficult few decades: disease, loss of habitat, and changes in agricultural practices are challenging bumblebee species across Asia, North America and Europe. For instance, of the 26 species formerly widespread in the UK, just six remain widespread.

Studies in Scotland and Canada found struggling bumblebee populations can become inbred, resulting in more sterile males and susceptibility to disease. Meanwhile, bumblebees such as the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee are suffering from deformed wing virus (which predominantly affects honeybees) causing shrunken and useless wings. Humans are also doing their part to crush the fluffy yellow cretins with pesticides containing neonicotinoids, which can be found in pollen and nectar in trace amounts. Colonies can be devastated by neonicotinoid exposure; a 2012 study by UK scientists found stunted growth and 85 per cent reduction in production of new queens compared with control colonies.

The ongoing destruction of bumblebee populations is good news for a scoundrel like you, but if you want an active role in accelerating their annihilation, you may consider abusing genetic manipulation. Under the right circumstances, you could spark uncontrollable chaos. For instance, the interbred ‘African killer bee’ was accidentally introduced to South America in the 1950s; these genetically dominant bees have since invaded much of the Americas and continue to spread across the continent. Now, manipulating genomes has become more accessible than ever.

You may have heard about gene drives, which are hyped by some biovillainy start-ups as a means of causing the extinction of an entire species. This is false advertising, although they could impact entire species in other ways. A gene drive causes a gene to spread rapidly through a population by ‘gaming’ inheritance. A sexually reproducing organism has two copies of each gene, one of which is randomly passed on to its offspring, but inheritance of a gene can be guaranteed by inserting the Crispr gene-​editing mechanism to eliminate the natural counterpart of the gene and causing the cell to repair by copying the gene drive. To supress a population, you would use a ‘recessive lethal gene’, which renders an organism unviable when inherited from both parents (e.g. by making them unable to develop or making them sterile) but can be passed on in a healthy organism if just one copy is present.

In an ideal situation, the inserted gene would double every generation like a nuclear chain reaction. Gene drives are most potent for species which reproduce quickly; a 2018 lab-based experiment using caged mosquitos saw populations crash within approximately 10 generations. Gene drives for population suppression are most widely discussed in relation to malaria-carrying mosquitos but, in theory, could be applied to one species of bumblebee at a time. Given the unusual reproductive cycles of bees, it would be most efficient to begin by inserting a virgin queen carrying a gene drive into a queenless colony such that she can pass it on to the entire next generation. This should not be impossible; in 2014, Dusseldorf-based scientists successfully introduced a transgenic honeybee queen to a hive in a limited study.

In practice, the gene would not irrepressibly multiply, as real populations are distributed spatially. Computer simulations show that eliminated populations are quickly replaced by neighbours, leading to resistance to the drive emerging. This is a reasonable prediction for gene drives targeting bumblebees, which are distributed heterogeneously in colonies across the globe with some relatively isolated populations unlikely to be affected.
According to Professor Kevin Esvelt, the displeasingly benign scientist credited with proposing the concept of a Crispr gene drive, gene drives are also a rare example of a ‘defence biased’ technology which can be detected (through modern sequencing method) and countered (e.g. with an immunising reversal gene drive) easily compared with other emerging biotechnologies. “Suppression drives are the most trivial to counter; not only are they incapable of wiping out a species without sustained human effort, but such an effort can be far more trivially countered by any opposing scientists who disagree,” Esvelt explains.

I’m afraid to say that killing all of the bumblebees is unrealistic. Even if you had access to a laboratory full of reckless and unethical scientists, a gene drive is unlikely to cause extinction. I believe you need to cut yourself some slack and set more plausible targets. Reflect on your past experiences and ask yourself why you feel this need to kill all of the bumblebees. As a wasp, you should be able to take pride in everyday evil deeds, such as stinging unwitting sunbathers.

Yours,
The Evil Engineer

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