Some of the honeybees were lying on their backs, trembling and twitching. Others were crawling slowly on the ground, unable to fly. Many were motionless, lying dead in piles. Many more had simply disappeared, apparently unable to find their way back to their hives. This was the gruesome scene commercial beekeeper Steve Ellis came upon on the morning of May 7, 2013.
The sight stunned Ellis, who has owned and operated Old Mill Honey Company in Barrett, Minnesota for 35 years. "Normally in the spring, we typically expect bees to build up and get stronger," he recalled. "For a beekeeper to watch his bees be devastated in the springtime — it's like watching a little child get extremely sick and debilitated. It takes a real mental toll on you."
But almost immediately, Ellis discovered the culprit: That morning, a farmer had planted corn in a field directly adjacent to his bee yard, which housed roughly 1,300 hives at the time. He was well aware that most corn seeds are treated with a pesticide called neonicotinoids. And that day, the wind was blowing from the cornfield toward Ellis' bees, the beekeeper wrote in an incident report he sent to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The bees' only sources of food were nearby willow trees, which, Ellis surmised, had become coated with pesticide-contaminated dust. "We took a close look to see how the bees were behaving when they were trying to forage them. It was shocking what we found," Ellis said in a video he took that day documenting the massacre. "Bees literally incapacitated when they come in contact with the flowers."
Ellis said he has no doubt that the farmer's pesticides had poisoned his bees. Neonicotinoids, called neonics for short, are the most widely used pesticides in the world; they coat the majority of maize seeds planted in this country. They are considered systemic pesticides, meaning they get into a plant's root and leaf system and are distributed throughout the organism — including to the pollen and nectar. While they're very effective at killing harmful pests such as beetles and aphids, neonics are also highly toxic to bees. High doses of exposure to the pesticides cause bees' nervous systems to shut down, killing them. And research has increasingly shown that even low doses of exposure to neonics can produce chronic, sub-lethal impacts in bees — meaning they can weaken or sicken honeybees and their colonies.
Pesticides are just one piece of a very complex puzzle of factors that is contributing to declining bee health and massive colony losses that are being reported by commercial beekeepers across the country. A few weeks ago, the US Department of Agriculture released data showing that US beekeepers lost more than one in five honeybee colonies in the 2013-14 winter season. Beekeepers have been experiencing abnormally high losses since 2006, when honeybees began mysteriously disappearing from their hives in large quantities, part of a phenomenon experts called colony collapse disorder (CCD). But since then, attention has shifted toward broader declines in honeybee health due to a wide range of threats, such as pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, migratory stresses, and environmental stresses — including exposure to pesticides.
While experts agree that declining bee health is a multifaceted problem, in recent years, a growing body of research has suggested that pesticides are a major threat to our nation's honeybees, weakening colonies and making them vulnerable to diseases and parasites. "We know that the dust from [pesticide-laden] seed planting is outright toxic to bees and responsible for ... bee kills on an annual basis during corn-planting time," said James Frazier, a professor of entomology at Penn State who has co-authored studies exploring links between pesticides and honeybee health. "We know that pesticides of multiple classes are having sub-lethal consequences at many levels. ... There's no doubt that they are having a negative impact on colony survival and health."
Beekeepers, researchers, and environmental advocacy groups accuse the EPA of failing to properly regulate pesticides and protect pollinators (most notably honeybees, but other insects and animals, too), while Europe has temporarily banned the use of three neonic compounds due to concerns about their impacts on bees. Critics say the federal agency has relied heavily on biased data from the corporate giants that profit tremendously from pesticides, including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, which manufacture neonics, and Monsanto, which produces the crop seeds that are coated with the pesticides. Furthermore, critics say manufacturers often bring pesticide products to market before their potential hazards are fully understood, and in some cases, their negative impacts on bee health have already been proven.
Several Bay Area beekeepers, researchers, and advocacy organizations hope to change this scenario. And four commercial beekeepers, including Ellis, have sued the EPA for continuing to allow the use of certain pesticides that are toxic to bees.
It's not just the beekeepers' businesses that are at stake. If honeybees continue to die at rapid rates, our food supply will suffer. Honeybees are believed to be responsible for one-third of all the food we eat — almonds, apples, blueberries, alfalfa that dairy cows depend on, and much more. According to the USDA, bee pollination sustains more than $15 billion in crop value every year, allowing for the commercial production of many foods that "give our diet diversity, flavor, and nutrition."
"This is not one of those species we can ignore," said Terry Oxford, a San Francisco-based beekeeper and activist. "Pollinators and bees are tied into our existence. They are essentially our food."
But neonics manufacturers deny that their products are responsible for declining bee health. While they acknowledge that pesticides can be toxic to bees, they insist they are safe if applied correctly. The Bayer CropScience officials who visited Ellis' bee yard after he found his sickened bees noted in an incident report that "neonicotinoid exposure was one likely cause of the incident." Still, the company downplayed the devastation: "The observed level of bee mortality, while clearly undesirable, did not appear to pose a serious risk of colony loss for the colonies affected." In a phone interview, David Fischer, Bayer's director of pollinator safety, who visited Ellis' bee yard, said the bee deaths were probably due to a combination of factors, including the fact that they had just traveled across the country. (Ellis keeps his bees in Barrett for honey production during the summer, and in Oakdale, California, which is about an hour and a half east of Oakland, for almond pollination during the winter.) "Steve might say there were severely impacted. I'm not sure I've seen any data that backs that up."
According to Ellis, however, the incident resulted in more than $200,000 worth of losses. And after his colonies were exposed to Bayer's pesticide, his bee population dwindled to about half of what it had been only a matter of weeks prior, he said. And that was only the beginning of the damage.
Honeybees are more important to human survival than ever before. In the last fifty years, the amount of agriculture production dependent on pollination has increased by 300 percent, according to the United Nations. Today, bees pollinate 71 out of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food worldwide, the UN estimated in a 2010 report.
And yet, honeybee colonies in the United States have been steadily declining since the 1940s, dropping 61 percent from their peak of 5.9 million colonies in 1947 to a low of 2.3 million reported in 2008, according to data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. More tellingly, beekeepers have lost a large percentage of their colonies in recent years. For the last several decades, beekeepers could typically expect annual losses of about 5 to 15 percent, which usually occurred during winter. But since 2006, winter loss rates have fluctuated between 22 and 36 percent. According to the USDA's annual colony loss survey, beekeepers lost 30.5 percent of their colonies in the 2012-13 winter season. Things improved slightly last season, when beekeepers lost 23.2 percent of their colonies. But for the second time, this year's survey also looked at summertime losses, which were nearly as high as winter rates — roughly 20 percent.
"We have become so dependent on this one species of pollinator — the honeybee," said Claire Kremen, UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy, and management. But while our food supply has increasingly demanded the services of bees, our agriculture system has transformed into one that is very challenging for bees and beekeepers. For decades, we have moved toward monoculture planting — growing single crops over large areas. "One of the things that happens when you plant things in monoculture is that you also become more vulnerable to pest attacks, because you've just laid out a feast," explained Kremen, who is also the faculty co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute. "A pest insect can rapidly spread." And the monoculture system, she noted, has also eradicated the habitats for predator species that naturally prey on these harmful pests. The only way, then, to control pests is with chemical pesticides, Kremen said. "And most pesticides have some generality to them and they're targeting insects — and bees are insects. So, do the math."
According to activists, this transition to monoculture has put us on a so-called "pesticide treadmill," in which farmers are forced to use increasingly toxic and larger amounts of pesticides in order to fight off pests, which have developed ever-greater resistance to the chemicals. Adding to the problem, a number of recent agricultural developments have exacerbated the effect of pesticides on bees. For starters, over the last two decades or so, the EPA has restricted the use of many older pesticides that were found to be extremely toxic to humans. While eliminating these old harmful chemicals was undoubtedly a good decision, it meant that farmers needed an alternative. So in the 1990s, neonicotinoids, which pose less of a risk to agricultural workers, entered the market. "We thought they were going to be the much safer next generation," said Paul Towers, who is the organizing and media director of Pesticide Action Network North America, which is based in Oakland. "But we have a regulatory system that allows you to bring it to market before you can fully understand what the impacts are."
Chemical companies soon began coating the seeds of corn and other crops with neonic pesticides, a practice that became widespread in the early 2000s. Neonics are now used as seeds treatments on more than 140 crops — including most corn and a large portion of soy, wheat, and canola seeds. In the case of corn, the rise of neonic seed treatments occurred alongside the proliferation of genetically engineered crops. For the most part, "They don't sell the genetically modified seeds unless they are treated with the chemicals," said Susan Kegley, principal scientist with the Berkeley-based Pesticide Research Institute, explaining how Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta have created a system in which neonics are pervasive in our environment. While in the 1990s, only around 30 to 35 percent of total corn acreage in the United States (roughly 75 to 80 million acres) was treated with insecticides, by 2012, 94 percent (of 92 million acres) of corn seed planted in this country was treated with neonics, according to the Pesticide Action Network.
"We've gone from pest eradication to pest prevention," said Jeff Anderson, a longtime migratory commercial beekeeper, explaining how pesticides have become so pervasive. He said pesticides have devastated his colonies for years, and he experienced record high losses — 67 percent — in the 2012-13 winter season.
A growing body of evidence has shown just how extensively bees are exposed to pesticides. In 2010, researchers at Penn State published results of a broad survey examining pesticide residues on samples of bees from 23 states. The group found 121 different pesticides and metabolites (a breakdown product of pesticides) in nearly 900 wax, pollen, bee, and hive samples. A majority of the wax and pollen samples contained at least one systemic pesticide; honeycomb and pollen samples were contaminated with an average of six pesticides. The number of pesticides detected in mixtures in bee pollen alone "represents a remarkably high level for toxicants in the brood [eggs and larvae] and adult food of this primary pollinator," the authors wrote.
"I think the research community was really shocked," said Frazier, professor at Penn State and co-author of the study, referring to the response to his report.
And more recently, studies have linked neonics to bee health. In 2012, entomologists at Purdue University published research showing that in agricultural fields that used neonic-treated seeds, neonics were found in the soil and nearby plants. Researchers also found clothianidin, a neonic compound (which was responsible for poisoning Ellis' bees last year), in the bodies of dead bees found near hive entrances, while no detectable levels of clothianidin were found in healthy bees. In addition, researchers discovered that the bees living in these environments transported tainted maize pollen back to their hives.
"If you wanted to design something that would kill bees, this is it," said Greg Hunt, who co-authored the Purdue study and is a professor of entomology at the university. The use of pre-treated seeds is so prevalent that farmers "don't have a choice," he added. "It's not the growers' fault. ... It's very difficult to get untreated seeds."
When I spoke with Hunt last month, he said he had found roughly a thousand dead bees in front of his hive at his home in Indiana just a few days earlier. The reason, he suspected, was a farmer who had planted corn a third-of-a-mile away on a field surrounded by dandelions, which the bees feed on. Hunt said he even found an empty bag of corn kernels nearby, indicating the farmer had used the most toxic clothianidin seed treatment available.
Just last month, Chensheng (Alex) Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, published a study linking neonics to honeybee colony collapses, replicating findings he first published in a 2012 study. He observed three groups of six bee colonies each from October 2012 through April 2013: Two of the groups were treated with different neonic compounds (at doses far below established lethal levels) and a control group was left untreated. For the first several months, all of the colonies experienced declines typical for New England winters. But in January, the control colony population began to increase, as is normal, while the neonic-treated hives continued to decline. By April, half of the neonic-contaminated colonies were lost, while only one of the colonies in the control group, which appeared to have been infected by a parasite, did not survive. "We were very confident in our conclusions that the pesticides caused this problem," Lu told me.
Ken Warchol, a sixth-generation beekeeper who managed the colonies in Lu's research and co-authored the study, said that neonics exacerbate other threats facing honeybees, such as mites and diseases. "There's no question that it's a deadly combination." He noted that in his commercial business, losses are consistently higher for hives located near farms treated with pesticides compared to hives located in suburban and urban areas. Numerous beekeepers I interviewed for this story echoed Warchol's experience.
Even when bees aren't killed outright by neonics, they can suffer lingering effects from exposure to the pesticides. Ellis, for example, said that his colonies suffered for months after being initially exposed to pesticides. Part of the damage was due to the fact that the next cycle of bees was still feeding on pesticide-contaminated pollen, he said.
A new state-by-state analysis of honey production data over time produced by the Pesticide Research Institute suggests there's a correlation between colony losses and the emergence of certain pesticides. The report compares rates of decline in honey production over the last two decades with rates of approval of neonic usage on different crops, and concludes that there's a correlation between the two. "Where they are planting corn and soy, it's a disaster," said Kegley. "These are declines of anywhere between 30 and 80 percent." But in areas where bees are able to forage on plants that have not been contaminated with neonics, honey production levels generally stayed the same or increased, she said.
In light of the mounting evidence, the European Commission last year decided to enact a two-year ban on three neonics to give officials an opportunity to reevaluate the pesticide's potential harms to bees. For years, beekeepers and environmental activists have called on the EPA to implement similar restrictions in the United States. So far, they haven't had any success.
Jim Doan has been a commercial beekeeper for more than four decades, pollinating apples in New York and citrus in Florida. But due to financial hardships caused by the massive bee losses he has experienced in recent years, he decided to sell his 112-acre farm in western New York state last summer. And now he's ending his honey business, too.
"I can't stand to see any more dead hives of bees," Doan told me by phone recently, adding that he will still raise bees, but only for the purpose of selling them to other beekeepers. "It's the only thing I've ever done in my life ... but I've got to get out."
Doan is one of the four commercial beekeepers who, with the support of a number of environmental advocacy groups, sued the EPA in March 2013 for what the suit calls the agency's "vast and extremely risky experiment" of allowing more than two million pounds of neonic pesticides to be used annually on more than 100 million acres of farmland.
"The research out there shows that these products are lethal to bees. When is the EPA going to say we've got enough information?" said Doan, who has lost about half of his hives every year since 2006, according to the lawsuit. He said his bees died from acute and chronic exposure to neonics, including from clothianidin-contaminated dust from a nearby cornfield. "I didn't do anything wrong," he added. "My world changed around me and I didn't have any say in it."
The lawsuit alleges that the EPA relied on manufacturers' inadequate studies in its approval of two neonic compounds — clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Furthermore, the suit alleges, the EPA violated the law in its refusal to suspend the usage of these pesticides despite knowing the hazards proven by independent research. Critics say the lack of proper risk assessment is woven into the agency's so-called "conditional registrations," by which regulators can approve a pesticide that meets certain standards but still requires more testing. The EPA insists it only registers safe products, but from the perspective of the agency's critics, pesticide manufacturers have repeatedly abused the conditional registration process and secured federal approval for the widespread and unsafe use of toxic chemicals.
"We don't have the luxury of debating these questions for the next decade," said Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper and co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. After 38 years in the industry, his honey business is no longer profitable due to repeated losses of his bees. "We are completely out of time." Theobald made headlines in 2010 when an EPA official sent him a memo — which he then leaked — that included concerns from the agency's own experts regarding "deficiencies" in a field study on the effects of clothianidin on honeybee hives. The study, which was funded by neonics manufacturer Bayer, found that the neonic seed treatments have no long-term effect on bees.
But the memo — authored by Joseph DeCant and Michael Barrett, an EPA ecologist and chemist, respectively — noted problems with the study and stated that the agency "expects adverse effects to bees if clothianidin is allowed to drift from seed planting." One problem with the experiment, according to the EPA's review, was that the two bee groups studied were kept too close together. Due to the "deficiencies," the study could no longer be categorized as "acceptable" and instead must be considered "supplemental," the memo said. This "supplemental" status meant additional research was needed to answer questions about clothianidin's risk to bees. While the study was not ultimately deemed invalid, to beekeepers like Theobald, it proved hugely problematic.
"It's just bogus," said Theobald. "The study was designed to avoid finding what they purported to be looking for."
The EPA memo was written more than seven years after the agency first raised concerns about how clothianidin seed treatments could expose pollinators to toxic pesticides. In 2003, the EPA approved a conditional registration for the pesticide, with the condition being that Bayer must conduct a study evaluating the long-term toxicity of the pesticide on pollinators. But the beekeepers who have filed suit against the EPA allege that Bayer has failed to meet this requirement.
"EPA knew from day one that there was this potential harm to pollinators and required [Bayer] to provide more information," said Sylvia Wu, a San Francisco-based staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a plaintiff in the suit. "[Bayer] hasn't produced it, but EPA has allowed the product to remain on the marketplace nonetheless." The Center for Food Safety, along with a number of advocacy groups and beekeepers, sued the EPA after the agency rejected their request in a 2012 petition to issue an emergency suspension of clothianidin.
The lawsuit, filed last year in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, is winding its way through the courts. In April, a judge issued a ruling dismissing parts of the beekeepers' claims and allowing others to move forward.
EPA officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson sent a lengthy email on the agency's behalf defending its approval of neonics and overall commitment to protecting pollinator health. Regarding Bayer's study that the EPA downgraded to "supplemental," the agency said Bayer did fulfill the requirement originally imposed as a condition of clothianidin's registration, but that more data was still needed. "EPA judged the study to be supplemental, meaning that additional research was needed to fully answer our questions about clothianidin's risks to bees. This experience helped us to refine the design of a new study." The agency stated Bayer's additional field studies on clothianidin are now underway, with results expected by the end of 2015. Regarding requests to suspend clothianidin, the agency said, "suspension is appropriate only if there exists a substantial likelihood of serious, imminent harm."
The EPA has also updated pesticide labels with new management practices for spray applications to minimize the potential harm to bees, the agency noted. The EPA has not, however, made any label changes for the widespread application of neonics through seed treatments. When I asked why labels for treated seeds don't address the potential harm to bees, EPA said it has required the manufacturers "to conduct studies measuring residue levels in pollen and nectar. These data will help resolve uncertainties around the risks posed by the use of neonicotinoids for seed treatment."
Concerns about bee health extend beyond the use of neonics. Research has increasingly demonstrated that the combined use of pesticides can lead to significantly increased toxicity levels in bees. In April, the Pollinator Stewardship Council reported that almond pollination in California led to devastating losses for beekeepers this year. The multibillion-dollar almond industry, which depends entirely on commercial beekeeping for pollination in late winter, brought roughly 1,300 beekeepers with a total of 1.7 million colonies to the state this season, according to the organization, which collects bee kill reports. Around 15 to 25 percent of those colonies were damaged, with losses totaling at least $64 million for the commercial beekeepers, the group said. The suspected culprit is a so-called "tank mix" of chemicals, which includes an insect growth regulator and fungicide.
The EPA, however, generally does not consider the impact of pesticide mixtures on bee health. "None of this has been adequately studied or taken into consideration for registration purposes," said Penn State entomologist Frazier. He published research in 2012 showing that certain chemicals sprayed on almonds — including chemicals that are considered "inert" and not subject to any regulatory testing whatsoever — can impair honeybee learning. "They are completely ignoring it," Frazier said. What's more, the almond growers who applied the tank mixes this year followed official label guidelines, said Michele Colopy, program director of the Pollinator Stewardship Council. "Growers and farmers are being shortchanged by the labels just as much as the beekeepers."
Asked about the bee deaths as a result of almond pollination, an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email that the cause and scope of the incident is currently under investigation, but if the agency finds that these chemicals pose "unreasonable adverse effects to the environment," then it "will move quickly to take appropriate regulatory action."
While under criticism for its products and practices, agrochemical companies have invested significant resources into programs that purport to support honeybee health. Bayer runs a "Bee Care Program" (and is in the process of expanding its research and development operations in Davis, where it is also establishing a new "bee health research center"), Syngenta has an "Operation Pollinator" initiative, and Monsanto runs a research unit called "Beeologics." From the perspective of environmental groups and beekeepers, the underlying motivation of these programs is clear: to mask the role their chemicals have played in the bee crisis.
Chemical manufacturers typically blame the issue of declining bee health on factors other than pesticides — primarily mites. "The number-one problem is the varroa mite," said Fischer, Bayer's director of pollinator safety and manager of the North American Bee Care Center. "All parties who are looking at this agree that the varroa mite and the diseases that the varroa mite can transmit are the most important factor." The parasitic mite known as the Varroa destructor essentially sucks the blood of bees, thereby spreading viruses. It was first discovered in the United States in 1987, and can destroy whole colonies.
Many researchers and commercial beekeepers agree that the parasite is a major contributor to declining bee health. However, they insist the mite isn't the only problem, and that their existence doesn't lessen the role that pesticides play. In fact, some scientists believe that pesticides weaken bees and potentially make colonies more vulnerable to mites and other pests and pathogens.
"They are trying to say, 'Hey, it's everything but our pesticides that is causing this," said Lisa Archer, director of the food and technology program of Berkeley-based Friends of the Earth, who showed me a photo of a large sculpture of a varroa mite attacking a bee that Bayer erected in its Bee Care Center in Germany, the company's headquarters. "What they are trying to do is distract attention from their contribution to the problem, which is classic tobacco industry science 101. The idea is to create as much doubt in the mind of the public and regulators as possible to delay action on their product." In April, Friends of the Earth released a report scrutinizing the marketing efforts of pesticide makers, arguing that they are protecting their profits with misleading campaigns that downplay the dangers of their pesticides in the same way tobacco companies once downplayed the cancer risks posed by cigarettes.
The stakes are high for these companies. For example, Friends of the Earth's report noted that Bayer reported more than $10 billion in global sales from its pesticide and seed growth products in 2012. Its leading neonic product, a compound called imidacloprid, is worth $1.1 billion, according to a 2011 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry article cited by Friends of the Earth's report. Bayer also has shared interests in clothianidin, which the journal article said is worth $439 million. The neonic product manufactured by the Switzerland-based Syngenta is a compound called thiamethoxam, which is worth $627 million, according to the report. Syngenta reported nearly $2 billion in total insecticide sales in 2013. St. Louis-based Monsanto, meanwhile, reported sales in its seeds and genomics division of $10.3 billion in fiscal year 2013. (Monsanto does not report financial data specific to seed treatments.)
Neonics represent just a portion of these companies' massive operations. In 2013, Bayer's CropScience division reported sales of roughly $12 billion and gross profits of roughly $2.2 billion. In the same year, Monsanto reported sales of $14.86 billion and gross profits of $7.7 billion, while Syngenta reported sales of $14.7 billion and gross profits of $6.7 billion.
The companies and their political action committees also spend significant sums on political donations and lobbying efforts in Washington, DC. Over the last ten years, Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto have spent roughly $55 million, $9 million, and $61 million, respectively, on lobbying activities, according to data from the companies and the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 2002, Bayer's PAC, Syngenta's PAC, and the Monsanto Citizenship Fund (the company's PAC) have donated roughly $2 million, $913,000, and $1.81 million to federal campaigns, according to data from the companies and from MapLight, a Berkeley-based nonpartisan research organization.
In an interview, Bayer's Fischer said the company's "crop protection" products are thoroughly researched and, when used properly, do not negatively impact pollinators: "If the labels are followed, the exposure levels are within the range that honeybees can tolerate without adverse effects to the colony." He added that, in terms of pollinator safety, pesticide seed treatments are much less risky than pesticides applied directly to foliage. These seed treatments are an "environmentally friendly way to use an insecticide," he said.
He also tried to discredit the studies that have pointed to links between neonics and declining bee health, saying they had flawed designs, weren't applicable to the real world, or presented mixed results. For example, regarding Lu's study linking neonics to colony collapse, Fischer said, "He overdosed the bees." He argued that Lu essentially fed his bees "abnormally high concentrations" of neonics in a manner that did not resemble field exposure. (Lu, however, countered that the daily dosage per bee was extremely low — and that he lowered the neonic levels the second time around in response to similar criticisms in 2012.)
Fischer also defended the studies called into question in the lawsuit against the EPA, arguing that Bayer has repeatedly shown that clothianidin is safe. "[The EPA] doesn't register anything unless they think the benefits outweigh the risks," he said. More broadly, Fischer argued, Bayer's pesticides are critically important to agriculture: "As the world population increases and the need to produce food continually increases, we need to maximize yields."
Representatives of Syngenta, which has its US headquarters in Delaware, declined to be interviewed for this story. However, spokesperson Ann Bryan sent a lengthy email, which stated, "We care about the health of bees and other pollinators, and always appreciate the opportunity to share our science about neonicotinoids and the vital role they play in crop protection and environmental health and safety." Bryan touted the efforts of Syngenta's Operation Pollinator, a program that is active in California, Florida, and Michigan and focuses on restoring native pollinators on farms through the creation of habitats. "Syngenta knows that modern agricultural technology and practices can and do successfully coexist with bees and other pollinators," she said.
Jerry Hayes, commercial director of Beeologics, Monsanto's honeybee research unit, said no research has shown that the company's pre-treated seeds lead to chronic, long-term health effects for honeybees. He also noted that Monsanto supports seed treatment stewardship guidelines that help protect bees. The fact that these products have passed all of EPA's regulatory hurdles proves that they are clearly safe, he said.
Like Fischer, Hayes emphasized that there is a reason there's a high demand for their seeds: "Farmers use these products because they bring value and they increase yields," he said.
But critics argue that neonics don't actually provide the agricultural benefits the companies use to bolster their cases. In March, the Center for Food Safety released a report citing eight peer-reviewed studies that showed a lack of a significant yield benefit from neonic treatments. (The companies have criticized this report, arguing that it is limited in scope and relies on flawed or narrow studies.)
Hayes also believes that eliminating varroa mites would dramatically improve honeybee health. He said Monsanto is currently trying to develop products that would allow honeybees to fight off mites through RNA interference, which would essentially silence the genes of harmful parasites. He also referenced a recent congressional subcommittee hearing on pollinator health that focused on the threat of varroa mites.
Monsanto spokesperson Billy Brennan referred me to an article from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service branch titled "Helping Honey Bees' Health," which, he noted, was consistent with the USDA's testimony at the hearing. In outlining all of the threats to bee health, the USDA's article did not include a single mention of pesticides.
Perhaps it's not surprising that federal regulatory agencies echo similar sentiments about bee health as those espoused by chemical companies. Both camps downplay the dangers of pesticides — in fact, they sometimes exclude pesticides entirely in their discussion of bee health.
For example, the USDA's recent press release on bee loss data placed a huge emphasis on mites. Bryan, the Syngenta spokesperson, emailed me the announcement, noting that the "results of this survey echo the findings highlighted in several other articles about the health of bees and the truth about the state of bee populations." She included links to several articles and op-eds that downplayed the bee crisis, blamed varroa mites entirely, and criticized anti-pesticide environmental activists.
The congressional hearing on pollinators in April also heavily focused on varroa mites, relying on testimony from Bayer's Fischer and Jeff Pettis, research leader of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory. No independent scientists or commercial beekeepers were called to testify. Bryan pointed to this hearing as further validation of the role that mites play in declining bee health: "Dr. Pettis called Varroa Mites the top bee health factor that needs to be addressed," she wrote.
But Pettis doesn't actually agree with that assessment. "It was not very balanced," he said of the hearing in a phone interview, adding it was a "shame ... we didn't hear directly from beekeepers." Pettis added that pesticide exposure is a key stress that can weaken bees and make them vulnerable to diseases. Last year, he co-authored a study showing that crop pollination exposes honeybees to pesticides that alter their susceptibility to a certain pathogen.
Regarding the USDA's "Honey Bees' Health" article that contained no mention of pesticides, Pettis said he was surprised by that fact. Hours after we got off the phone, the article was updated to include the word "pesticides" in a laundry list of factors; a USDA spokesperson commented below the article that its exclusion was a typo.
So why does the government exclude pesticides in its discussion of bee health? Pettis offered this explanation: "There has been a recent emphasis on varroa mites and varroa controls — in everything from the congressional hearing to our most recent press release. This by no means deemphasizes the important role other stressors like nutrition and pesticide exposure play in bee health."
Pettis also noted that while pesticides "were not high on my list of suspects," when researchers first began observing significant losses starting in 2006, "they've risen much more so in the last five years." And, he said, if the varroa mite disappeared tomorrow, that would not solve the problem. "I think that about a third of our problems would go away," he said, adding, however, that most of the challenges to bee health would still remain. "That's big. That's the majority of our problems."
The most striking aspect of my conversation with Pettis was that it revealed a clear disconnect between the agency's public relations officials and research scientists. A few weeks ago, Kim Kaplan, a spokesperson for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service department, told me, "We are averaging about 30 percent losses over winter. Where do pesticides fit into that? It's really hard to say." Kaplan even brushed aside concerns raised by Pettis' own findings in his 2013 study exploring how the combination of pesticide exposure and pathogens can have negative effects on honeybee colonies. Those results were mixed, she said: "It shows you how confusing the scientific evidence is." She also sent me several articles slamming the Harvard studies on neonics, as well as a link to a Forbes op-ed that defended neonics and criticized the European ban on the pesticides.
Some argue that the corporate influence on bee research extends to academia as well. "I think there are people that are afraid to publish data for fear of their careers being interfered with by industry," said Maryann Frazier, a honeybee specialist at Penn State's department of entomology (and wife of James Frazier). "There are people within the pesticide community that ... slam this research and these young up-and-coming scientists, because they have said something negative, even if the research has been peer-reviewed." Harvard's Lu said he was surprised by the intensity and the sometimes personal nature of the attacks he faced after he published research unfavorable to neonics.
Companies may also be attempting to influence academic research through contributions to universities. According to Bayer's Fischer, the company plans to spend roughly $12 million on bee health in North America this year, with about one-third devoted to research including grants to conservation organizations, contracts with research organizations, and research within universities. The amount Bayer has spent on bee research has increased significantly in recent years, he added. Bryan of Syngenta said the company invested $1.37 billion globally in research and development in 2013. Brennan from Monsanto said the company "does fund a lot of external research from a lot of different backgrounds, including academia." Monsanto spent $1.5 billion on research and development in 2013, according to the company's financial reports, plus $113 million on purchasing Beeologics, the research firm, in 2011.
Such research investments can help the companies get the positive press they seek. When Monsanto announced that it had bought Beeologics, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran with this headline: "Monsanto buys Beeologics, working to save pollinating bees."
While the declining health of honeybees is certainly troubling, other insects and pollinators that are beneficial to our food supply are also under threat. New research raises concerns about the potential harms pesticides carry for a range of species, including birds, aquatic invertebrates, and butterflies. Some environmental advocates and researchers have attributed dramatic declines in monarch butterflies to the widespread use of herbicides, which has killed the milkweed plants on which monarchs depend.
"As we've switched to genetically engineered corn that allows us to spray more and more herbicides, we then kill off every piece of vegetation that's around the corn," said Towers, of the Pesticide Action Network. "The butterflies and the bees are just ... indicators of how the landscape has changed so dramatically."
While manufacturers present their chemicals as essential to modern agriculture, the widespread use of toxic pesticides is not the only option. Many food policy experts and environmental advocacy groups believe that "integrated pest management" programs — in which pesticides are used as a last resort — are more sustainable in the long-term and less hazardous to pollinators. In this model, growers use a variety of tactics to control pests, such as rotating crops and supporting predators. Instead of "pre-sterilizing" fields with chemicals, as the Center for Food Safety described in its recent report regarding the overuse of neonics, pesticides can be applied only when pest damage poses a serious economic threat. In organic food production, growers don't use any synthetic chemicals at all and only apply pesticides produced from natural sources.
Failing to change our current mode of agricultural production could be devastating. If commercial beekeepers can't keep their bees alive, they won't be able to bring their pollination services to the growers who depend on them. "Ten years from now, I don't know whether we will have commercial beekeeping as a career," said the Pesticide Research Institute's Kegley. Further declines in bee pollination could translate to smaller yields and higher prices for a number of crops, including apples, oranges, cherries, and blueberries. And that means a less healthy diet, said Kremen of the UC Berkeley Food Institute, noting that people struggling with malnutrition and obesity need access to affordable fruits and vegetables — foods that largely rely on bee pollination. "It's not a pretty picture."
Consider the case of almonds, which rely on pollination from a whopping 60 percent of all managed US honeybee colonies every year, according to the USDA. As the almond industry has boomed in recent decades, the number of honeybee colonies available for pollination services has dropped. At this stage, research shows that the beekeepers are just barely meeting demand. And after the devastating kills this past season, some beekeepers told the EPA that, without meaningful regulatory reforms, they will have to add a pesticide surcharge to almond pollination contracts for 2015, according to the Pollinator Stewardship Council.
Other beekeepers, however, may just stay away from the almond groves altogether next year. The risk of severe hive damage is just too great.
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