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It's fitting that the pesticide industry has been accused of using “tobacco-style PR tactics" to attack bee research that blames pesticides for colony collapse disorder—especially because the insecticide that's looks like the main culprit is made from nicotine.
But the researchers themselves aren't taking the affront lightly. Alex Lu is an associate professor of environmental exposure biology in Harvard's department of Environmental Health. Lu has been the lead author on papers—the most recent of which was just published in the journal Bulletin of Insectology—that name neonicotinoid, a type of insecticide, as the cause behind CCD, rather than mites, which the pesticide industry would prefer blamed for obvious reasons.
Lu's research found that the hives that collapsed weren't any more plagued by mites than the ones that survived the winter. At three different locations in Massachusetts, the team set up groups of hives and fed them on high fructose corn syrup and sucrose—one group was treated with the neonictinoid imidacloprid, one with the neonictinoid clothianidin, and a third group's food was left untreated as a control.
“The hives were strong and healthy before the winter, but then in the middle of winter, the hives that were infected with neonictinoids would start to collapse,” Lu said. “There were no bees in the hive, or dead bees at the bottom of the hives. They had abandoned their colony, which is totally against the nature of honeybees, which don't go outside in the winter.”
The bottom of hives that are infected by mites are typically covered in dead bees. CCD hives are eerily empty. In Lu's two different studies, only one of the control, non-neonictinoid-treated colonies collapsed. In it, thousands of dead bees were found inside the hive, showing symptoms of a common intestinal parasite called Nosema ceranae.
While this isn't definitive proof that neonictinoids are solely responsible for CCD, it makes the link stronger and may explain why taking bees' honey and replacing it with high fructose corn syrup—a common practice among beekeepers— seems to make them more vulnerable to CCD .
“If you put neonictinoids in the soil, then the root of the plant can uptake them and transport them to every tissue of the plant,” Lu explained. “GMO corn is engineered with neonictinoids. The corn that we harvested to make high fructose corn syrup with, is likely to be contaminated with neonictinoid. And high fructose corn syrup goes to commercial beekeepers, and CCD was first reported by commercial beekeepers.”
But Bayer, which makes neonictinoids, came out against Lu's research, saying in a press release, “Feeding honey bees levels of neonicotinoids greater than 10 times what they would normally encounter is more than unrealistic—it is deceptive and represents a disservice to genuine scientific investigation related to honey bee health.”
With money on the line, Bayer has been hiring scientists of its own to go before Congress, and work in Bayer's own North American Bee Care Center, which is designed to address the “complex set of stressors, including parasites and diseases, lack of genetic diversity, and inadequate nutrition” that plague bees. Notice a conspicuous absence there?
At any rate, I called Lu to find out what he thought of Bayer's critique. He was, uh, not impressed.
“I mean, '10 times' higher than what?” he asked. “What we tried to do is come up with a level that is we think is tolerance. Tolerance that was established by the USDA and EPA.”
It's easy to see why this critique irks Lu so much. The whole point of this study was to examine so-called “sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids.” That's how the title begins.
“In our first year study we used a ratio of concentration with the highest at 400 ppb. That's lower than the 500 ppb that's considered 'tolerance' of neonictinoids in honey,” Lu said. “And we found out that there's no safe level for bees to avoid colony collapse disorder. In our current study we use 100 ppb.”
To Lu, it seems like a dodge. Bayer is creating a distinction between what bees encountered in the study and what they'd encounter in nature based on nothing other than the results that they wanted to see.
To me, it looks like it fits a pattern of profit-based science-denial that goes back to cigarettes and has lived on in denying climate change. While scientists have to be peer-reviewed and disclose their methodology, all that a company has to do is say “nah” enough times for policymakers to pick up on the doubt too. And since corporations have money to donate to elections—Bayer is no exception—it doesn't take that many “nahs” to get a result.