photo via Flickr user Hamed Saber
Two big news stories just came out about potential causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious plague resulting in the deaths of billions of bees, and triggering an endless stream of environmentalist hysteria. One news story focused on mites; the bigger story blamed pesticides.
Now that the list of suspects is being narrowed, a rift is forming between apologists for the pesticide industry, and the same bleeding-heart environmentalists who've been making noise about this all along. After years of wait-and-see news reports, things are getting cinematic: The evil chemical corporation might be the bee murderer after all, but if it is, it's not going down without a fight.
These dying bee stories with no certainty in sight have been background noise for years. Even when a dire New York Times article came out in 2013 saying perhaps half of all bees needed for agriculture had died, it sounded too familiar to really shake us. Conversely when the news earlier this year was that deaths had slowed a little, we didn't really notice that either.
But it's been an exciting few weeks in the world of All-the-Bees-Are-Dying News.
April: It's The Mites.
photo via Flickr user Gilles San Martin
On April 29, Congress received testimony from a bee expert working for the Bayer corporation, a manufacturer of pesticides. Unsurprisingly, they did not blame pesticides. They blamed varroa mites, an exotic pest introduced into American crops in the 1980s. The mite is no joke. It infects bees with a disease called Varroosis, and takes over their colonies.
Environmentalist publications like Friends of the Earth flipped out about Bayer's testimony, calling it "stacked against science." They blame Bayer, and the family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, not all of which are manufactured by Bayer. In 2012, studies started blaming neonicotinoids for bee deaths, and the pesticides are currently banned in Europe as a sort of continent-wide experiment.
For years, neonicotinoids have been the far left's scapegoat for this whole mess. What could be a more perfect target than a cheap and widely used industrial poison made from nicotine. Just hearing about the nasty-sounding stuff makes me want to blame everything from Israel-Palestine to my irritable bowel syndrome on it. But that would be a knee-jerk reaction not based on evidence.
Ask an environmentalist what the cause of any ecological disaster is, and you'll inevitably receive the same tried-and-true answer: Corporate greed with the help of a corrupt government that fails to regulate it because of intimidation or payoffs by powerful lobbies. We've heard it all before, enviros.
May: No, It's Really the Pesticides.
Then on May 9, the results of a major experiment from Chengshen Lu of the Harvard School of Public Health followed up on previous studies into whether neonicotinoid pesticides are the culprit. His report showed that they probably are. And he means it this time.
Lu's previous study in 2012 had suggested that the bees were merely being injured by the pesticides during nice weather, and then dying only months later from the long term effects of their condition, perhaps exacerbated by those pesky varroa mites.
But the new findings suggest that the pesticides are flipping on some other biological mechanism that's killing them, seemingly without the help of mites. "We demonstrated again in this study that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter," the report said. It has an air of certainty, and maybe that's what's made it so sensational.
To its credit, the USDA website features a report acknowledging the possibility of blaming neonicotinoids, but the pesticides are mentioned only below the section on varroa mites. I called them to find out how they were responding to Lu's study, and they refused to comment on short notice. The person I spoke to hadn't read the report.
Bayer has, and they issued a response:
screencap from Bayer Crop Science
Essentially, they don't consider it valid because Lu used too much of their chemical.
Lu's new study did in fact use seven times the concentration of neonicotinoid pesticide his 2012 study had used. But it's worth noting that the chemical was added to the food supply left out for the bees, and they ingested it voluntarily.
Bayer can certainly claim that this is ten times the amount a bee is likely to encounter in the wild, but it's hard to imagine how they could possibly control the concentration or amount used by any given farmer. The bees involved in the experiment digested that amount, and then behaved normally for months, before exhibiting all the signs of colony collapse disorder—mostly lying still and decomposing, although there's also the part where all the healthy bees flee the hive.
Lu's study certainly isn't enough to justify a ban, just more experiments. Taking an example from history, after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, it took ten more years to ban DDT. If Bayer puts up a fight while opinion turns against their pesticide, there'll be plenty of time to become certain. Assuming the bees can hold out until then.
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