Are pesticides a threat to bees? — part two

Editor’s note: The first part of this ongoing series, “Pesticide companies smoke screening bee crisis?”, appeared in the May 14-20, 2014, issue.

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

All three companies, Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto, are strengthening their reach into the scientific community in order to establish credibility for their case, that pesticides are not to blame for bee declines.

In June 2013, Monsanto hosted a three-day Bee Health Summit at its Chesterfield Village Research Center in Chesterfield, Mo., where the company greatly expanded its reach and influence in the scientific community. At the summit, Monsanto announced the formation of a Honey Bee Advisory Council, a strategic alliance of Monsanto executives and others.

A press report noted that Monsanto’s research into efforts to control varroa mites was influenced by the very same Honey Bee Advisory Council it had assembled, suggesting that the company may be using the council’s scientific credibility to emphasize bee threats other than pesticides.

The company’s creation of the Honey Bee Advisory Council as well as its purchase of a bee research firm has generated both internal and broader public credibility as Monsanto promotes itself as a key driver of solutions, rather than a source of the problem as a major pesticide manufacturer and a distributor of neonicotinoid-coated seeds.

Another study targets varroa mites

U.S. beekeepers lost more than one in five honeybee colonies in the winter of 2013-14, fewer than the previous winter. But beekeepers are still reporting substantial losses, even in the summer. Beekeepers who tracked the health of their hives year-round reported year-to-year losses of more than one in three colonies between spring 2013 and spring 2014.

A national survey of honeybee losses, conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture collected these statistics. Dennis van Englesdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and director of the Bee Informed Partnership, led a team of 11 researchers who conducted the survey. A total of 7,183 beekeepers, who collectively manage about 22 percent of the nation’s 2.6 million commercial honeybee colonies, took part.

No single culprit was responsible for all the honeybee deaths, they found. But the Bee Informed Partnership’s research showed mortality is much lower among beekeepers who carefully treat their hives to control varroa mites.

The survey found that 23 percent of the managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. died between Oct. 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014. This is well below the average loss of 29 percent over the survey’s history. But summer death rates were nearly as high as the winter ones. Over the summer, about 20 percent of survey respondents’ colonies died. Losses between spring 2013 and spring 2014 averaged 34 percent.

Now in its eighth year, the survey originally focused on winter mortality in managed honeybee colonies. The generation of bees that lives through the winter must survive months longer than summer bees’ 30-day lifespan. In winter, bees don’t produce offspring and are confined in a hive where diseases can spread.

About two-thirds of beekeepers surveyed, who ranged from hobbyists to large businesses, said their colonies suffered unacceptable losses — greater than the 19 percent mortality rate that, on average, they could absorb. It was the second year in a row that most beekeepers reported unacceptably high mortality. The beekeepers were asked to list the probable causes of their losses; and in a separate survey, some also described how they managed their hives. Responses are still being analyzed, but an initial review, fieldwork and past surveys all implicate varroa mites as a major — and controllable — problem.

Beelogics — a case for collusion?

In September 2011, Monsanto acquired Beelogics, a bee researach firm based in Israel and Florida, for $113 million. In an article in Monsanto’s home-town newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was reported that Monsanto’s newest acquisition had developed an antiviral product called Remembee, which could offer a solution to Colony Collapse Disorder. Monsanto selected longtime employee Jerry Hayes to be Beelogics’ commercial lead. In a press release, Monsanto explained how it would support the Beelogics team and its Technology Advisory Board in advancing its pipeline.

In another partnership with bee researchers, Monsanto announced in September 2012 that it would match a grant to Project Apism (PAm) from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, solidifying the corporation’s financial relationship with the nonprofit.

PAm’s mission is to fund and direct research to enhance the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production. PAm portrays itself as the go-to organization at the interface of honeybees and pollinated crops. Jerry Hayes, Honey Bee lead for Monsanto, announced in September 2013 that PAm has been fortified with funding to further promote forage resources for honey bees. By emphasizing the lack of forage, Monsanto again plays down the role of harmful pesticides.

Randy Oliver, one of three key advisers to PAm, consistently praised the company’s role in addressing the bee crisis, while repeating key message points that divert the focus away from pesticides. The key common consensus was that the main causes of colony health problems are poor nutrition and the varroa/virus complex, sometimes exacerbated by pesticide issues.

The industry’s reach with beekeepers extends to Europe, where the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has received significant funding from Bayer, Syngenta and other pesticide companies, an arrangement that some critics have called a quid pro quo.

In 2009, after the BBKA took a pro-pesticide stance, one of its members spoke out against their declaration. Beekeeper Philip Chandler said, “… they should not be endorsing pesticides or toxins under any conditions whatsoever. There is something very wrongheaded about an organization that claims to be defending the interests of bees and beekeepers taking money from the manufacturers of pesticides. Having a dialogue with them is one thing, but taking money from them is another.”
Syngenta has even attempted to bring Friends of the Earth England, Wales, Northern Ireland into their fold, using Friends of the Earth’s statements on bee declines to promote their own anything-but-pesticides messaging. They did this in a blog item titled, “Together for Bees.” In another blog item titled, “Bed & breakfast for bees,” they asked, “are Friends of the Earth joining Syngenta to tackle bee health?”, referring to a chance of cooperation despite disagreements.

Syngenta’s attempt at creating distraction also includes company-produced news interviews and direct attacks on critics and regulators. They use videos masquerading as news. In one Syngenta-produced “news” interview about neonicotinoids, Chief Operating Officer John Atkins states that they are convinced that bee declines have nothing to do with neonics, testing has proved the products are safe, and he even maintains that the company is doing more to support bees’ health than the people attacking Syngenta. He then criticizes the European Commission move to restrict neonicotinoids, claiming that the agency ignored actual evidence.

While denying criticism of pesticides, Syngenta adds another diversionary tactic by blaming pesticide users (i.e., farmers) for any rare negative effects on bees. Bayer’s Bee Care website emphasizes the bee-responsible use of its products and implies that any problem with neonics is because of improper use by farmers.

Spinning science

The companies’ denials of blame and attempts to spin science are nothing new. When Bayer’s most profitable pesticide, imidacloprid, was restricted in France due to patent expirations and government bans in 1999, the company brought a similar product, clothianidin, onto the market. But a French scientific advisory panel found that treatment of seeds with imidacloprid also posed significant risks to bees, and its application for approval was rejected.

Still, Bayer CropScience Deutschland clams that seed treatments are one of the most targeted and environmentally-friendly ways to apply crop protection products. However, European and other government agencies contradicted Bayer’s assertions. As Environment News Service reported in 2008, the accusation of flawed studies is echoed by the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which discredited Bayer’s claims that clothianidin is safe.

Attacking regulators

In January 2013, Bayer issued a press release asking, “Is Europe heading for a set-back in agriculture?” Calling the European Commission’s proposal to ban neonicotinoids draconian, Bayer claimed that the pesticides can be safely and effectively used. By March 2013, Syngenta and Bayer proposed an alternative plan to support bee health. Their suggestions included planting more flowering field margins and monitoring neonicotinoids. Bayer and Syngenta also used PR to amplify any lack of consensus on the ban among EU member countries and publicize this lack of compromise as recognition of the safety of neonicotinoids.

The same diversionary message is incorporated into lobbying documents. Documents obtained by the Corporate Europe Observatory showed that, as early as June 2012, Syngenta, Bayer and the European Crop Protection Association were engaged in a private behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to prevent a ban on neonicotinoids in the EU. Through a series of letters, these companies made accusations with questionable scientific and factual backing in an effort to convince European commissioners that neonicotinoids were not the problem.

After their PR and lobbying efforts failed, Syngenta and Bayer led lawsuits against the European Commission in August 2013 for the ban of thiamethoxam, one of the three neonic suspended insecticides, claiming that the Commission’s decision was based on an inaccurate and incomplete assessment.

U.S. politics

Some observers believe the chemical industry’s aggressive lobbying in Europe is partly due to fear that the United States might act next. While U.S. regulatory agencies have not made any significant move to adopt similar restrictions, in July 2013, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 2692), which would suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides until a full review of scientific evidence indicates they are safe, and a field study demonstrrates no harmful impacts to polllinators.

In April 2014, according to Politico, within a week of opening its new Bee Care Center in Triangle Park, N.C., Bayer increased its lobbying power by hiring Cornerstone Government Affairs (CGA), a D.C.-based lobby firm, to help “pollinator health and habitat promotion” after a growing campaign, which includes reports from the European Union, has accused Bayer of causing large-scale harm to the bee population with its pesticides. Current clients of CGA also include Syngenta and CropLife America (a trade association representing the manufacturers of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals).

While bee health was not listed as a specific issue on Monsanto’s and Syngenta’s lobbying records, the documents indicate that the companies lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 on agricultural research, biotech regulations and pesticides. The EPA is responsible for re-evaluating neonicotinoids through its pesticide regulation review program until at least 2018.

Despite the EPA’s scientific conclusions, similar to that of the European Food Security Association, the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture do not support a ban in the U.S. So far, nothing has been done despite leaked documents from EPA that indicate the agency is ignoring warnings from its own scientists about the dangers of the neonic clothianidin. Instead of a ban, the EPA has developed a new pesticide label that will allegedly help protect bees from toxic exposure to neonicotinoids by prohibiting their use where bees are present. However, the labels ignore the widest application of these pesticides: the seed treatments that enable the uptake of pesticides into the plant and later into pollen and nectar.

Bees are essential to one out of three bites of the food we eat, and two-thirds of global food crops, from almonds to strawberries. Industry attempts at spin, distortion and the propagation of doubt may be effective in U.S. politics for causing delay and inaction, but will only cause harm in the long run, critics of the manufacturers say.

The U.S. government needs to follow the lead of the European Union and act to protect such a vital component of our food system and healthy ecosystems. Citizens can urge Congress to pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act. The EPA should listen to the growing body of science linking neonicotinoids to bee declines and move quickly to limit the use of these pesticides while taking other steps to protect bees and other essential pollinators. The White House must also demonstrate leadership and push Congress and federal agencies to move quickly to protect bees. And the media need to be aware of the tobacco-style tactics used by pesticide companies, including spinning the science, buying credibility, blaming the user and promoting the anything-but-pesticides multiple factors theory — to deflect blame from pesticides in the bee crisis.

Breaking News: Bayer has just sued the European Commission to overturn a ban on the bee-killing pesticides. A huge public effort won this landmark ban only months ago. Bayer and Syngenta are together in fighting this bank, and bee proponents are united in trying to stop them. Just last month, 37 million bees were discovered dead on a Canadian farm. For any of the public who want to oppose these agri-giants, SumOfUs has an online petition at

From the May 21-27, 2014, issue

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