The politics of bees turns science on its head — Europe bans neonics while local beekeepers, scientists say action is precipitous

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Article Highlights

  • An EU ban of insecticides will become effective at the end of the year even though scientific questions remain.

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  • Farmers are mostly opposed to even a temporary ban absent definitive real world research, calling it reckless.

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  • Environmentalists think neonics cause bee colony collapses in Europe and the US despite conflicting evidence.

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Although a vote by the 27 member states of the European Union to suspend use of the insecticides failed to reach a qualified majority-voting in the EU is weighted, and Britain, Italy and many other nations remain steadfastly opposed-EU rules now give final discretion to the commissioners. They have announced that the ban will likely become effective at the end of the year even though the scientific questions as to what has caused the bee deaths remain largely unanswered.

Farmers in Europe and elsewhere are almost universally opposed to even a temporary ban absent definitive real world research, calling it reckless. As they note, because bans exist on more toxic organophosphates-the chemicals that neonics replaced because of their more benign safety profile-there are no real alternatives.

Farmers scoff at activist claims that comprehensive spraying programs could suddenly be replaced by crop rotations or the use of natural pest predators-the tools of organic farmers who produce only a fraction of the volume required by commercial farms to feed growing populations. It's estimated that without neonics or a suitable replacement, farmers could face losses estimated by one industry study as $5.78 billion per year in Europe alone-and many multiples of that if a ban is instituted in the United States and other major agricultural economies, with the costs passed on to consumers.

The EU legislators were pressed hard to vote for the ban by anti-chemical campaigners, who have maintained that periodic mass bee deaths over the past 8 years can be linked to increased use of neonicotinoids. Neonics, as they are often called, are a new class of systemic pesticide popular in the US, Australia, Europe and elsewhere to help corn, soy, cotton, canola and citrus farmers. They were adopted over the past 20 years as a less toxic replacement of organophosphate pesticides, which are known to kill bees and wildlife, and have been linked to health problems in workers.

Neonics replaced more toxic alternatives

Neonicotinoids are extremely effective. Applied to the soil, sprayed on the crop or used as a seed treatment, they are taken up in the plant, discouraging pests from wrecking havoc on crops. The seed treatment lowers the amount of pesticide used 10 to 20 fold, decreasing the need for open spraying of the plant, a genuine sustainability benefit. But the environmentalist community has coalesced around the belief that neonics, while causing no or limited harm in Australia, the canola fields in Canada, and elsewhere, is responsible for scattered colony collapses in Europe and the United States.

Although the EC announcement was not unexpected-a political decision by a legislative body guided by precautionary politics on science issues, from chemicals to natural gas to nuclear energy to biotechnology-it left unaddressed the question of the spate of bee deaths that have cropped up in some regions in recent years.

Neonics were phased in without incident in the 1990s. Only in 2004 - coincidentally with the spread of deadly varroa mites and their increasing resistance to the pesticides beekeepers use to keep them under control - did activists begin looking for alternative explanations. They first blamed GMOs. "There are many reasons given to the decline in Bees, but one argument that matters most is the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)...," argued the anti-globalization group Global Research. But as GMOs have gained favor with the science community, the focus of activist groups shifted and a new culprit was settled upon: neonicotinoids.

Over the past year, advocacy groups dramatically intensified their campaigns, targeting legislative bodies in Europe, which, under the precautionary principle of ‘better safe than sorry,' often pass restrictive legislation even in the absence of persuasive empirical evidence. That's what's unfolding now.

The research on bee colony deaths is dicey-and often political. Last year, one study showed that bumblebees exposed to high doses of the neonic imidacloprid in the lab, then released to forage in the field, had sharply reduced colony growth rates and produced 85 percent fewer queens to found new colonies. A later study savaged those findings, demonstrating that the scientist had failed to adequately account for the birth of new bees, a major oversight, rendering the conclusions dubious at best. In another study, more than 30 percent of free-ranging honeybees whose brains were doused with the neonic thiamethoxam-which is not the way bees encounter the chemical in the real world- got confused, failing to return to the hive. The issue took a sharp turn in January when the European Food Safety Authority issued three studies raising questions about the potential role of neonics in this latest wave of bee deaths. The studies did not link the pesticides to the collapse of whole bee colonies, but were still relied upon by EFSA for its recommendation of a precautionary ban.

Real world experience points to mites, colony management as more likely culprits

Standing opposed to these lab results are provocative real world case studies in Canada, the UK and Australia. Canola is grown commercially mostly on the prairies in Canada, the largest single producer of canola in the world with more than 50,000 producers and 16 million acres. It's a nutritionally rich crop for bees. Approximately 300,000 colonies harvest open pollinated canola. Although neonicotinoids are widely used to protect canola from pests, Canadian bee populations have been largely unaffected and produce around 50 million pounds of canola honey. An Ontario field study funded by Bayer appears to back up the real life evidence challenging the activist doomsday scenario. It found no difference in colony health between hives exposed to neonics and those that weren't, in real life conditions.

"The doses the bees are exposed to [in lab studies] are far above what a realistic field dose exposure would be," says Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree, head of the Ontario study. Canadian canola farmers say they have had 10 years of large-scale use of neonics on canola with no observed ill effect.

Britain's rapeseed crop, which is similar to canola but has a high acid content and is generally produced for animal feed, has not experienced serious bee losses either-which is one of the reasons the government opposed the ban. The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reevaluated the existing research earlier this year, concluding, "The risk to bee populations from neonics, as they are currently used, is low." The DEFRA study noted that oilseed rape (OSR) "requires insect pollinators to support its productivity. The fact that OSR treated with neonicotinoids has been a productive crop for over a decade in the UK is itself evidence that pollinator populations, including bees, are not being reduced by the presence of neonicotinoids." The EC ignored the DEFRA report.

Many British beekeepers also oppose the ban. "Whilst the [British Bee Keepers Association] is concerned about the possible damage that these substances may be inflicting on pollinators, it notes that unequivocal field based studies have not been conducted and the evidence is incomplete. ... [T]he authors of the report still appear to be unable to demonstrate deleterious effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees managed by beekeepers in the UK and we renew our call for further investigations to reassure us that these products can be used safely with regard to honey bees."

Bee experts-as opposed to anti-chemical campaigners that see banning neonics as a key piece of their overall advocacy strategy-are increasingly wary of this myopic focus on neonics. Hannah Nordhaus, author of the Beekeeper's Lament, and widely regarded as a sober voice in this debate, weighed in after a prior article I had written for Forbes raising similar issues:

Great piece, Jon. CCD, as a diagnosis was first identified in 2006, but there have been mysterious disappearances of bees periodically since the nineteenth century (and well before.... Some occurrences did sound similar to CCD, though CCD is such a vague and difficult diagnosis (every time a bee dies these days someone calls it CCD) that it's impossible to know. Nonetheless, it is true that there have been mass disappearances well before neonics ever appeared on the scene. Bees die from all sorts of things, and especially from varroa mites.

As for the Harvard study [the so-called ‘silver bullet' research cited by anti-neonic activists]... it is, of all the studies on neonics and bee deaths that have come out, arguably the worst-"embarrassing" was the word I heard from scientists I interviewed about it. Peer reviewed, I suppose, but in a journal no one in the entomology world had ever heard of when it came out. ... It makes sense to me that neonics, as persistent and systemic as they are, could very well hurt bees and other pollinators at sub-lethal levels, but the science just isn't convincing yet, to me anyway, and as Jon points out, there are places where they use neonics where the bees are doing fine (though I have gotten some feedback from people about the Australian situation - they claim beekeepers there are losing bees but simply aren't reporting it, and that most beekeepers there are in the bush, not located near farm crops that could be treated with neonics).

Nordhaus' skepticism is matched by Randy Oliver, who runs the popular scientificbeekeeping.com website, also manages a 500 colony migratory operation in California-which is ground zero for the anti neonics movement. He writes regularly for the American Bee Journal and other publications, and believes, like most bee experts and smaller beekeepers, that there has been a rush to judgment in solely targeting neonics.

Scientific Beekeeping's Randy Oliver weighs in

Oliver has posted a comprehensive analysis of what he believes is behind this past winter and spring's upsurge in bee deaths. He lays the blame squarely on weather and bee management practices, which correlate more closely with bee survival rates than does the use of neonics. In a section titled "The Lynch Mob," Oliver discusses the media and activists penchant to look for simple solutions regardless of the facts. "Despite the fact that a wide range of bee-toxic insecticides are being applied (often during bloom) to corn, soy, sunflowers, alfalfa, cotton and other major crops, if you Google anything about insecticide use, you'll quickly find that the blogosphere focuses only upon the putative link between single class of insecticides-the neonicotinoids-and the decline of pollinators."

"People look at me incredulously when I point out there is zero firm evidence to date that neonic seed treatments are a serious problem," he adds. "But the notion that all honey bee problems are caused by an insidious new insecticide resonates with a distrustful public, and has firmly established itself as ‘common knowledge.' But repeating something does not make it true!" Oliver then outlines the variety of likely contributors to bee deaths-the kind of comprehensive and nuanced review absent not only from advocacy group analyses but also from many government agencies, the EC included.

There is also a fascinating political backstory within the beekeeper community, particularly in the US. There seems to be a split between local beekeepers, which for the most part don't see neonics as the primary culprit and the larger, more commercial industrial outfits, some of which are notorious for their sloppy bee management practices. In particular, they are known to liberally douse their bees with anti-virus chemicals whether they need them or not-all of which means that colony management and overuse of anti-virals could explain a lot of what's going on.

Bee management practices go a long way toward explaining the spike in bee deaths in California recently. It's estimated that 1.6 million (out of 2.5 million) of all US hives are trucked to the West Coast each year, mostly to pollinate the almond crop, which dramatically increases external stressors from travel, viruses and parasites like varroa. That's where most of the problems are, one beekeeper wrote to me recently:

"Every winter for years, beekeepers have been taking their hives to California for the biggest pollination event in the world. The majority of the country's bees are placed cheek to jowl in an environment that consists of one flowering crop: almonds. Why do they do this? To provide food for the nation? No, they get cash for every hive they can bring. The almond growers are feeding the nation, then? Nope. 70% of the crop is sold overseas. So, the beekeepers cram their hives together, risking the transmission of whatever viral infections they have, and then they haul them back to their home state, possibly to bring infections to homegrown hives, which are never trucked about. And to add insult to injury, the beekeepers are now suing the EPA, probably hoping to make a case for some huge subsidy (to pay their trucking costs?). If people really cared about bees, they would purchase honey and support local beekeepers."

In a bizarre political twist, in their zeal to target neonics or any chemical for that matter, the Center for Food Safety and other advocacy groups have forged pacts with some of the most notorious and worst performing commercial beekeeping operations, who believe they can ride the activist outrage to a large legal settlement. They claim the government authorized the use of neonics without proper evaluation-which considering the years of evaluation that led to its introduction, and the broad embrace of the product by both farmers and beekeepers, is ludicrous. The suit is a cynical act of expediency in which science is sacrificed to tort politics.

The settled narrative-blame it on neonics-at this early juncture conjures up thoughts of a classic small town murder case where there is a clamor for instant ‘justice'. That translates into targeting the most vulnerable suspect, selecting and discarding whatever evidence fits the theory and then holding kangaroo court. The accused is then banished and everyone goes home, feeling smug that the town is safe. They just don't want to think about the problem anymore. Just string ‘em up and call it a day.

That might have worked in small town Oklahoma in the 1850s, but its not any way to do sober science, especially when so many jobs are linked to such a catastrophic decision-regardless of what the evidence eventually might show. But when the research comes in and the complicated facts emerge, suddenly we'll have an unmanageable environmental and an economic crisis on our hands, all because we didn't have the patience to do some basic scientific legwork. That's scandalous.

 

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