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Bees pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops, which constitute about one third of everything we eat. On December 1, a European wide ban takes effect on the use of three chemicals collectively known as neonicotinoids to guard against insect infestation. The two-year restriction was voted into law last April after a split vote by the European Commission in response to public fears that ‘neonics’ were the source of a rash of bee deaths reported in some countries.
Neonicotinoids are a class of systemic pesticide used as a seed coating, soil application or spray to protect oilseed rape (canola), maize (corn), cotton, almonds and sunflowers, among 140 or so crops. They were adopted over the past 20 years to replace organophosphate pesticides, which are hundreds of times more toxic, are known to kill bees and wildlife, and have been linked to health problems in workers.
Even their sharpest critics acknowledge that neonics are extremely effective. Applied as a seed treatment, they become systemic throughout the plant, discouraging pests from wreaking havoc on crops. The treatment lowers the amount of toxic chemicals used by 10 to 20 fold and decreases the need for open spraying of the plant, a genuine sustainability benefit.
Neonics were phased in without incident in the 1990s. But an age-old problem in the bee world—periodic and unpredictable bee deaths—reemerged in 2004, when casualty rates briefly approached 60 percent in the California almond fields. Beekeepers called it the vampire mite scare because of its likely link to varroa mites—parasites that feed on the bodily fluid of bees—and on miticides used to combat them.
The debate over what might be causing periodic spikes in bee deaths has since been enmeshed in politics. In 2006, after new waves of bee deaths were reported around the world, anti-biotechnology activists blamed GMOs, and they still make that claim, although there is zero evidence to back it up. Over the past three years, the focus of protest groups has shifted to a new alleged culprit: neonicotinoids.
Despite the widespread media publicity that has accompanied reports of bee deaths and has so many people unnerved, the global number of bee colonies has actually remained stable over the past 15 years and fears of a colony collapse crisis are abating even as bee health remains a serious challenge. But as an emerging scientific consensus suggests that neonics are playing a minor role, if any, in bee deaths, the discussion became radically politicized last January, when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released its risk assessments of three of the pesticides: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin.
EFSA’s reviews did not directly link them to the collapse of bee colonies, but they did raise precautionary concerns. But the agency’s news release that accompanied the posting of the studies went beyond EFSA’s legal mandate, citing “unacceptable risks” posed by the three neonics. That characterization set off a firestorm of publicity and propelled the issue to the European Commission, which would ultimately adopt a two-year ban.
Neonics are dangerous—politics or science?
EFSA’s analysis was based almost entirely on contested laboratory studies that showed associations but no direct links between neonics and bee disorientation and deaths. One publicized 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. 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 trace amounts of the chemical in the real world—got confused, failing to return to the hive.
The findings were so dramatic—and so contradictory of the real life experiences of many beekeepers in Canada, Europe and Australia—that the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which oversees pesticide regulation, decided to reevaluate existing research. Reports from the field showed no clear pattern of problems; the lab based data, DEFRA scientists came to believe, measured doses and application methods that farmers don’t actually use.
“The risk to bee populations from neonics, as they are currently used, is low.” DEFRA concluded in March after its extensive review:
Laboratory-based studies demonstrating sub-lethal effects on bees from neonics did not replicate realistic conditions, but extreme scenarios. … While this assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field, it suggests that effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances. Consequently, it supports the view that the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low.
But DEFRA’s analysis was largely ignored by the EC, whose leadership apparently felt compelled to do something and do it quickly in the face of a building media feeding frenzy. The 27 member state representatives split—failing to get a majority in March and then, after an appeal, reaching a bare majority in April. That was not enough for a ban under EU rules, but the Commissioner, Malta’s Tonio Borg, exercised his legal prerogative and imposed one nonetheless, over the objections of Britain and numerous other countries.
The question remains: Did European politicians act hastily? Could this ban lead to more bee deaths, however unintended?
Without neonics or a suitable replacement, farmers could face sizable losses. One industry study estimated the fallout at $5.78 billion per year in Europe alone—and many multiples of that if a ban is instituted in the US and other major agricultural economies, with the costs passed on to consumers. The ban is also likely to usher in the return of pyrethroids—the far more toxic compounds that neonics have widely replaced for health and safety reasons.
The British government remains adamant that a ban is unjustified, and it reiterated that stance earlier this month. “We opposed these restrictions because our assessment was (and remains) that evidence did not point to risks to pollinators that would justify restrictions,” said the government in a recently published report. Increasing number of field-realistic studies have failed to find an effect of neonicotinoids on bees,” the government noted in its latest report.
Corruption in European oversight of neonics?
This conjunction of fear and politics raises troubling questions about how to oversee complex health and environmental issues. Europe has not exactly been a leader in rationally-grounded science policy; it has heavily restricted genetically modified crops over the objections of its own science organizations.
Biochemist Lin Field, head of biological chemistry and crop protection at UK’s Rothamsted Research, said the EFSA decision was based on “political lobbying” and could lead to the overlooking of other factors involved in bee colony deaths, such as viruses spread by mites. Industry, perhaps predictably, believes that science was thrown under the bus to appease real but scientifically dubious public concerns. Bayer and Syngenta, two of the primary manufacturers of neonics, filed suits to challenge the ruling, but under EU law it’s unlikely their cases will be heard for more than a year.
The political intrigue factor rose considerably this summer when the Director-General of the EFSA, Catherine Geslain-Lanéele resigned to take up a job at the French Ministry of Agriculture. What’s the backstory? France was the point country in the debate to impose a EU-wide neonics ban, which is not surprising. The country had stumbled its way into an ideological quagmire in 2012 when the newly elected Agricultural Minister, Stephan Le Foll, responding to activist stirred concerns, imposed a national ban on the Syngenta chemical Cruiser, whose active ingredient is the neonic thiamethoxam.
Realizing that this put France at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of Europe, Le Foll began actively campaigning for a European wide ban, an effort critics say was designed mostly to level the competitive playing field titled by a rash political move. Facing a storm of controversy last year, the EC mandated EFSA to evaluate the current state of research on the three neonics, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. That assessment was posted January 16.
The media release on which many news stories based their leads and which set the tone for the subsequent EC debate and ban, raised eyebrows among scientists. It sounded alarmist, referring to “unacceptable risks”—a characterization that does not reflect the research data and years of real life usage.
Working off of the news release, the media around the world trumpeted this broad-based indictment of neonics. But EFSA acknowledged that its recommendations reflected a high level of scientific uncertainty. It did not evaluate the growing body of independent field monitoring research (which is what DEFRA analyzed to reach a different conclusion) that evaluated the safety of these pesticides in real world use.
The release also noted that EFSA concluded that none of the three neonic pesticides could be used safely on bees foraging on nectar and pollen—which as regards one of the three neonics evaluated, thiamethoxam, was flat out incorrect. The final EFSA report had not identified any such risk for thiamethoxam, the active ingredient in Cruiser. In fact, the most up to date and comprehensive peer reviewed field study on thiamethoxam, released earlier this month in Apidologie, concluded, “at realistic (mean) exposure rates…no adverse impacts on brood production [of bumblebees] were found.”
It has since become know that EFSA was aware that its draft media summary contained mistakes in fact and emphasis before it was officially released—but a key EFSA bureaucrat released the erroneous version anyway. How did this screw up happen? What was going on behind the scenes?
It turns out that a more measured and factually accurate news release was ready go and internally approved by EFSA scientists and staff, but was blocked by none other than EFSA Executive Director Geslain-Lanéele. Based on the mistaken news release, the EC would later erroneously argue that none of the pesticides could be used safely on bee attractive crops.
The ban on thiamethoxam bailed French Agriculture Minister Stephen Le Foll out of the political rat hole he had bumbled into with his precipitous Cruiser ban announcement the year before. A few months after the ban was passed, Geslain-Lanéele was out at the EFSA; exactly what led to her departure is not clear. Soon after she took a job as one of Le Foll’s deputies. Her credibility under scrutiny at EFSA, was Geslain-Lanéele rewarded for what appears, based on the public record, to be a political rescue of her future patron?
Earlier this month, Syngenta filed a legal challenge against the EU’s decision to suspend use of Cruiser, claiming a flawed process and incomplete assessment. It could well prevail in court within the next year or two—but the financial damage and the blow to the reputation of its product, is permanent. Bayer filed a similar legal action last month in defense of its neonic products clothianidin and imidacloprid.
What does the future hold?
As the campaign to ban neonics has unfolded in Europe, environmental activist groups in the US have upped their campaign, calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to impose immediate restrictions. They were disappointed in May when a joint US Department of Agriculture-EPA report pointed to a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” including agro-chemicals, as likely suspects in recent bee die-offs. Reflecting the emerging consensus, the committee concluded that the “major factor underlying colony loss in the US and other countries” is not neonics but varroa mites.
The EPA faces a suit filed by activists, accusing the agency of performing inadequate toxicity evaluations and allowing registration of the pesticides to stand on insufficient industry studies. They have called for an emergency ban. The agency says it is continuing to monitor the data and expects to come out with new recommendations in 2018. It asked a court in early September to dismiss the lawsuit.
Many independent bee keepers, such as California-based Randy Oliver, who writes the respected Scientific Beekeeping blog and is a lifelong environmentalist and organic gardener, are concerned that the search for a ‘quick and easy’ villain is complicating efforts to get to the bottom of the bee health conundrum.
“So are the neonics making things better, or worse?” Oliver writes. “When I look at the results of the extensive testing for pesticide residues in bee hives, what stands out is that the neonics are seldom found. The independent (meaning trusted by beekeepers) Penn State University researchers conclude that the pyrethroid insecticides overall pose far more potential for harm to bees. So as attractive as the “neonics are causing the extinction of the honey bee” hypothesis is, I simply don’t find it to be supported by either the scientific nor on-the-ground evidence.”
The bee health situation is fluid. A recent article in Scientific American, with the sub headline “why colony collapse disorder is not that big a deal anymore,” appears to confirm Oliver’s observations. According to science journalist Francie Diep, the overall incidences of CCD have declined sharply since the winter of 2011-2012. Some entomologists say colony collapse disorder is no longer a major problem. The key challenges to bee health going forward, they say, are colony management, bees running out of honey to eat over the winter, unhealthy queens and the blood-sucking varroa mite.
While not deadly in themselves, these parasites act as a vector, attaching to honeybees and appearing to be “both a disseminator and activator of a number of bee viruses,” according to a report on honeybee disease in Europe by the Food and Environment Research Agency. In countries experiencing bee decline, varroa is a feared and growing presence among beekeepers—even if neonicotinoids are absent. For example, in upland areas of Switzerland where the pesticide is not used, bee colony populations appear to be under significant pressure from the mites. In other words, beside beehive management challenges, numerous factors appear to be in play with varroa mites and the use of the miticides at the top of the list.
Bee deaths are not to be taken lightly. But the technology-intensive agricultural industry provides an easy target for those who want to “do something,” often without much regard to the unintended consequences. For the next two years at least, Europe seems a scientific lost cause, much as it has bungled the oversight of crop biotechnology. It’s myopic focus on a precipitous ban on neonics means that the most likely causes of bee deaths are going unaddressed. Ironically, in its politically based strategy to ‘save the bees,’ European politicians are undoubtedly making things worse. Let’s hope reasonable views prevail in the United States, where a measured, evidence-based evaluation process would be a welcome relief from the political circus in Europe.
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