Big business on the line in debate over bees, insecticides

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Bayer CropScience’s shiny new $2.4 million North American Bee Care Center demonstrates the company’s commitment to finding ways to improve the health of these vitally important winged insects.

But the very existence of the center is also a symbol of the high stakes at play for Bayer, as well as other agribusinesses, in the debate about insecticides and the alarming rate of bee colony deaths.

Critics say a class of insecticide called neonicotinoids, produced by companies such as Bayer and Syngenta, play a major role in the fragile state of the world’s bee population — which farmers rely on to pollinate many of their crops.

Insecticide makers defend the use of neonicotinoids, commonly called neonics. When used properly, they say, neonics aren’t responsible for killing bee colonies.

They point to studies that show that bee colonies suffer from a cascade of factors, including: pests such as the Varroa mite, which can be deadly to bees; a variety of diseases and fungal infections; extreme weather; and a lack of a diverse food source for bees as development encroaches on their feeding grounds and former pastureland gets planted with crops that aren’t especially nutritious for bees.

“It is equally important to understand that the solution to bee health requires a comprehensive approach,” David Fischer, director of pollinatory safety at Bayer, testified before Congress in April.

The controversy over neonicotinoids — so named because they are chemically similar to nicotine — has boiled over into the policy arena.

In December, the European Union issued a two-year suspension of many uses of three neonics because of concerns about their impact on bee health. A bill calling for a U.S. suspension of neonics has been introduced in Congress. And a coalition of environmental groups and beekeepers has sued the Environmental Protection Agency seeking to suspend the use of two neonics.

The outcome of the debate will impact the future of U.S. farming practices and, one way or another, the bottom line of agribusinesses.

Germany-based Bayer introduced the first neonics in the U.S. in 1994. BASF, another German company, doesn’t manufacture neonics but does include them in two of its professional pest control products used to combat roaches, bed bugs and other insects. Likewise, St. Louis-based Monsanto uses neonics in some of its insecticides and as a seed coating but doesn’t actually produce neonics.

None of these companies breaks out the revenue they derive from neonic products. But neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the world, with estimated worldwide sales of $3.6 billion. In addition to being used as a spray, neonics have been used extensively in the past decade as a coating for seeds.

“One of the advantages of seed treatments is it helps control insects below ground and helps plants get off to a better start,” said Caydee Savinelli, an entomologist for major neonics maker Syngenta.

Each side in the debate over neonics wields scientific studies that buttress its point of view.

“Every year, every month, more and more science publications come out that link neonics to poor bee health,” said Larissa Walker of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group.

“There are no studies that link neonicotinoids to widespread bee losses,” said Bayer’s Fischer. “There are studies that evaluate exposures under highly artificial laboratory conditions and report effects, and then speculate what this might mean in the environment.”

Studies that have examined what happens “in the field,” he added, “have concluded there is no scientific evidence that links neonicotinoids to these widespread declines in honeybee health that are being observed.”

Some scientists are on the fence.

“The jury is still out” on how significant a role neonics play in bee health, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland.

Still, he worries that farmers and home gardeners are using neonics indiscriminately.

“I think it could be used much more judiciously,” he said.

There’s no doubt that numerous other factors are in play.

“There is … a general consensus that the causes of (bee) colony mortality are multifactorial and interacting,” stated a USDA report issued last year.

In the past eight years, an average of 29.6 percent of honey bee colonies maintained by beekeepers have died each winter, according to annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bee Informed Partnership, a group that studies bee health and management.

The latest survey found lower losses of 23.2 percent over the 2013-2014 winter, which is still considered unacceptable. Moreover, losses have dipped before — down to 21.9 percent in 2011-2012 — only to rise again.

The characteristics that have made neonics the No. 1 insecticide are the same characteristics that have attracted concern.

“What is great about neonics is they are systemic,” said vanEngelsdorp. “You paint a little bit on the seed, and the plant sucks it up. Then when (an insect) eats the leaf, it dies. This prevents you from having to go and spray that crop several times.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “some of this gets into the pollen and nectar, and that is where it poses a risk to pollinators” — that is, bees.

The Center for Food Safety’s Walker argues that although there are certainly many factors threatening bee health, neonics is one that could be easily controlled by halting its use.

“We know, and the science increasingly shows, that neonics exacerbate all these other factors,” she said. “They make the bees more susceptible to the threat of the Varroa mite, to the threat of the Nosema virus, to the threat of poor nutrition.”

Back at the Bayer bee care center in RTP, the team members include Sarah Myers, the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.

Myers, who is the center’s event manager and apiarist — a fancy name for “beekeeper” — said some beekeepers questioned her decision to go to work for Bayer.

Myers said her interest was piqued when she saw “an industry leader like Bayer has taken the initiative to invest in honeybees. … I thought it was very impressive they were building the center, they had another research facility in Germany, and a whole team of folks devoted to honeybee research.”

She said she’s now fielding questions from fellow beekeepers: What research is the center doing? Or, “Can you help me with my hive? Maybe some of your scientists can give you insight.”

“It’s better to be on the side of learning,” she added, “than just saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with them.’ It’s been a great experience overall.”

United States - North America - United States government - Europe - Western Europe - United States Congress - Germany - North Carolina - U.S. Department of Agriculture - Raleigh - Monsanto Co


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