Response to “The Bee Killers” Article in Rolling Stone
Monday, August 24, 2015
By: Dave Fischer, Director, Pollinator Safety
We were disappointed to see the recent piece in Rolling Stone on pesticides’ alleged impact on honey bees. The article, from its sensationalist title to the repetition of activist talking points, was simply wrong about the science around honey bee health.
Ironically, Rolling Stone did not mention in this article that Bayer first became involved in bee health more than 25 years ago, precisely to help beekeepers like the protagonist in this story. Beekeepers are critical to Bayer’s agricultural business and when they were struggling to deal with the ravages of the varroa mite, Bayer invested time, money and research into solving the problem. More than two decades later, our commitment has only grown.
Despite its narrow-minded focus on neonicotinoids, anyone reading this article would not learn that these important crop protection tools have been widely used precisely because of their favorable human health and environmental safety profile over the older products they replaced. Nor does this article come close to portraying the breadth of scientific research that supports the safe use of these products around bees when used in commercial agriculture. With hundreds of studies conducted (many of which were discussed with the reporter but were never mentioned in the article, perhaps because they didn’t fit with her narrative), we know more about neonicotinoids and bees than any other class of pesticides in use today.
Specific Rebuttal Points
There are numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations throughout the story. We’ll highlight a few of the major ones here and let you decide for yourself if the Rolling Stone piece can withstand objective journalistic scrutiny. Have a question on a particular issue? Let us know and we’ll try to get an answer for you.
“America’s pollinators are vanishing and a silent spring could become a horrifying reality”
This leading statement repeats the false apocalyptic narrative used by anti-pesticide organizations that has been discredited (for example, see articles by Jon Entine in the Huffington Post and Forbes Magazine). Honey bees are not vanishing – their numbers have increased 45% globally since the 1960s
and have steadily risen in the U.S. over the past decade.
Scientists “agree that the rise of neonicotinoid-coated seeds…has contributed to the steep decline in bee populations”
Extensive studies in Europe and North America show that poor bee health correlates well with the presence of parasitic mites and diseases, but not with the use of neonicotinoids. In 2015, a three-year study conducted by scientists from the University of Maryland, the EPA and the USDA confirmed what other research has already shown – that field-relevant exposures of neonicotinoids have negligible effects on honey bee colony health.
The author seems to have little interest in reaching out to scientists who have done actual research on neonics and bees. Ignoring cautionary advice of bee experts Dennis vanEngelsdorp and May Berenbaum not to assign blame on a single factor, the article proceeds to do the exact opposite with its unrelenting focus on neonics.
Bees were “all right until recently”
This statement is often repeated by anti-pesticide organizations, but it cannot be supported by any available evidence. National surveys of colony health were not made until 2006, so that claims of bees being fine before that time are speculative at best. What we do know is that there have been periodic episodes of widespread honey bee colony losses in the U.S. going back to the 1860s.
The EU ban on neonics is “inconclusive” when it comes to improving bee health
In the one example of where a broad ban of neonics was put in place, the fact that bee health has not improved in Europe should be a sign that the use of these insecticides cannot be considered a major factor in bee decline. Nonetheless, the article wrongly suggests this may be because of the neonic residues in the ground. Extensive research shows that trace levels of neonics in the soil are not taken up by plants at levels that could cause any harm to bees. Not surprisingly, the article makes no mention of the serious damage to crops of EU farmers who can no longer use these products. And despite this ban’s stated purpose to improve bee health, results from this year’s COLOSS report on winter losses show that colony losses doubled when compared to the previous year when neonics were in still in use.
“These compounds have come on the market so rapidly that they outstripped scientific readiness” (regarding potential effects of neonics on human health)
The article seems to imply that because this class of chemistry is new, the regulatory process has failed to adequately evaluate their potential impact on human health, which is completely untrue. Human health evaluation is the primary component of a pesticide’s registration. On average, it takes approximately 10 years before a new pesticide is commercialized, during which all studies needed for registration are completed and reviewed by EPA.
The favorable research results in canola bee trials is an aberration, not the norm
Rolling Stone diminishes the extensive research showing no harm to bees when using insecticide seed treatments in canola by appearing to accept at face value the claim by an anti-neonic organization that this crop is somehow different from all others when it comes to bee health. Comprehensive reviews of multiple studies and databases comprising 15 years of research involving neonicotinoids and pollinators have been published recently by a diverse group of researchers. These reviews, which analyzed the abundant information available regarding pesticide-pollinator risk assessment, all infer that neonicotinoid insecticides are unlikely to be a significant factor when assessing bee risk.
Work by “independent scientists” associated with the IUCN task force “determined that sublethal effects of neonics are very, very bad for bees”
As exposed by the Risk Monger blog, the recent IUCN report was directed by a group of anti-neonic scientists who were actively promoting a ban of these products in Europe. This was not an independent scientific group. They had a clear agenda. The article implies that other independent scientists agree with the conclusions of the IUCN task force, but this is not true at all. Many independent reviews have concluded that neonicotinoids cannot be implicated as the cause of bee declines based on available evidence. (See Cresswell et al., Blacquierre et al., Stavely et al., Fairbrother et al., and Godfray et al.)
Flupyradifurone “is supposed to be safer for bees because it is even more toxic”
This claim made about flupyradifurone is demonstrably false. Studies show that it has a low toxicity to both adult and immature honey bees and the EPA approved label even allows for sprays during bloom.