When the average hides the risk of Bt-corn pollen on non-target Lepidoptera: Application to Aglais io in Catalonia

Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2021 Jan 1;207:111215. doi: 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2020.111215. Epub 2020 Sep 11.


Field cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) Bt-plants has a potential environmental risk toward non-target Lepidoptera (NTLs) larvae through the consumption of Bt-maize pollen. The Bt-maize Cry protein targeting Lepidoptera species detrimental to the crop is also expressed in pollen which is dispersed by wind and can thus reach habitats of NTLs. To better assess the current ecological risk of Bt-maize at landscape scales, we developed a spatially-explicit exposure-hazard model considering (i) the dynamics of pollen dispersal obtained by convolving GM plants emission with a dispersal kernel and (ii) a toxicokinetic-toxicodynamic (TKTD) model accounting for the impact of toxin ingestion on individual lethal effects. We simulated the model using real landscape observations in Catalonia (Spain): GM-maize locations, flowering dates, rainfall time series and larvae emergence date of the European peacock butterfly Aglais io. While in average, the additional mortality appears to be negligible, we show significant additional mortality at sub-population level, with for instance a mortality higher than 40% within the 10m for the 10% most Bt-sensitive individuals. Also, using Pareto optimality we capture the best trade-off between isolation distance and additional mortality: up to 50 m are required to significantly buffer Bt-pollen impact on NTLs survival at the individual level. Our study clears up the narrow line between diverging conclusions: those claiming no risk by only looking at the average regional effect of Bt on NTLs survival and those pointing out a significant threaten when considering the variability of individuals mortality.

Keywords: Average population at risk; Bt-maize; Ecological risk assessment; Landscape exposure; Non-target Lepidoptera; Spatio-temporal exposure-hazard model.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacillus thuringiensis / genetics
  • Bacillus thuringiensis Toxins / toxicity*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Butterflies / drug effects
  • Butterflies / metabolism
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Endotoxins / metabolism
  • Endotoxins / toxicity*
  • Hemolysin Proteins / genetics
  • Hemolysin Proteins / toxicity*
  • Larva / drug effects
  • Plants, Genetically Modified / metabolism
  • Plants, Genetically Modified / physiology*
  • Pollen
  • Spain
  • Zea mays / genetics
  • Zea mays / physiology*


  • Bacillus thuringiensis Toxins
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Endotoxins
  • Hemolysin Proteins
  • insecticidal crystal protein, Bacillus Thuringiensis