New Study Shows Bee Research Tainted by Corporate Funding

Story at-a-glance -

  • Systemic neonicotinoid pesticides have been increasingly blamed for bee deaths, prompting the European Union (EU) to ban them for two years to study their involvement with large bee kills
  • The concern now is that these studies will be heavily biased with industry funding, as the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has indicated corporate funding from insecticide makers will be allowed
  • The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has reacted to the new government report, calling for unbiased bee research to protect bees, the environment and food supplies
  • An independent review by 29 scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (which looked at 800 studies) found neonicotinoids are harming bees, butterflies, earthworms, snails, birds, and more
  • Neonicotinoids were also detected at nine Midwestern stream sites sampled during the 2013 growing season, indicating their widespread environmental risks

By Dr. Mercola

Since 2006, US beekeepers have lost 10 million beehives, worth an estimated $2 billion.1 The monetary loss is staggering, but the losses to the food supply, which could soon be disastrous if bees keep disappearing, is beyond words.

There is no price that can be put upon the work of bees, which pollinate one-third of the food we eat. Just about every fruit and vegetable you can imagine is dependent on the pollinating services of bees. Apple orchards, for instance, require one colony of bees per acre in order to be adequately pollinated. Almond growers must have two hives per acre.

So far there have been enough bees to keep up with production… but just barely. Those in the industry describe an increasingly dire situation in which finding enough bees to pollinate crops is "chaos."

Many growers are now booking contracts with beekeepers, which migrate in from other parts of the country, far earlier than ever before.2 Beekeeper Jeff Anderson told the Star Tribune, "We are close to the tipping point, where the bee industry cannot respond to the needs."3

The Battle Over Insecticide Use Grows

While no one is debating the fact that bees are in trouble, intense controversy has risen over why. There are basically two primary sides to this debate: those who believe insecticides are to blame and those who do not. As you might suspect, championing the pro-insecticides camp are their makers, including Monsanto and Bayer.

Monsanto, which is the world leader in genetically modified (GM) crops (and the pesticides and herbicides that go along with them), bought Beeologics in 2013, a company whose primary goal is finding a solution to the colony collapse disorder (CCD, the widely used term to describe bee die-offs).

Bayer is a leading manufacturer of the neonicotinoid pesticides at the heart of the debate. They opened the North American Bee Care Center in 2013, where they are conducting "bee health research" and promoting "bee-responsible use of Bayer products."

Clearly, the research coming out of Beeologics and the North American Bee Care Center are likely to be tainted with regard to these companies' products and their impact on bee populations. Monsanto and Bayer are going to stop at nothing to make sure their insecticides and GM crops are completely cleared of any wrongdoing.

Already, in 2010 a study by Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk found that CCD was not caused by pesticides but rather a combination of fungus and virus, found in all collapsed colonies, may be the culprit…

What was not widely reported in the media, however, was that Dr. Bromenshenk received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination – a massive conflict of interest that is likely to be carried over into any upcoming research from Bayer and Monsanto.

Recognizing this obvious conflict of interest, the UK's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has reacted to a new government report, calling for unbiased bee research.

Get my FREE 20 health resolutions for 2020 hereGet my FREE 20 health resolutions for 2020 here

Bee Research Must Be Transparent and Stave Off Corporate Influence

Systemic neonicotinoid pesticides have been increasingly blamed for bee deaths (and were implicated in last year's mass bee die-off of 25,000 bumblebees along with millions of bee deaths in Canada), prompting the European Union (EU) to ban them for two years, beginning December 1, 2013, to study their involvement with large bee kills. At the end of two years, the restriction will be reviewed.

In July 2014, the UK's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conducted a consultation on a draft of the National Pollinator Strategy,4 with the final version to be published this fall.

The draft lists plans to produce a "better understanding of the role and value of pollinators, as well as the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and the impact of the EU ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides on farmers' crop growing practices."

The EAC has taken issue with DEFRA's strategy, however, stating that it relies too heavily on corporate funding from pesticide manufacturers, which threatens the integrity of the research. Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:5

"When it comes to research on pesticides, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is content to let the manufacturers fund the work… This testifies to a loss of environmental protection capacity in the Department responsible for it.

If the research is to command public confidence, independent controls need to be maintained at every step. Unlike other research funded by pesticide companies, these studies also need to be peer-reviewed and published in full."

The concern now is that these studies will be heavily biased with industry funding, or that DEFRA may try to overturn the ban ahead of schedule next year.

Pesticide maker Syngenta has already tried to seek an "emergency" exemption to the ban, but the EAC is calling on DEFRA to take a clear stance against such loopholes. The EAC report further added, "New studies have added weight to those that indicated a harmful link between pesticide use and pollinator populations."6

More Research Implicates Neonicotinoids in Bee Deaths

Neonicotinoids are now used on most American crops, especially corn. This newer class of chemicals is applied to seeds before planting, allowing the pesticide to be taken up through the plant's vascular system as it grows. As a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.

These insecticides are highly toxic to bees because they are systemic, water-soluble, and pervasive. They get into the soil and groundwater where they can accumulate and remain for many years and present long-term toxicity to the hive. Neonicotinoids affect insects' central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time. One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee's immune system.

Forager bees bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it's consumed by all of the bees. Six months later, their immune systems fail, and they fall prey to secondary, seemingly "natural" bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi, and bacteria.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a report that ruled neonicotinoid insecticides are essentially "unacceptable" for many crops,7 and in the US, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) announced that they were restricting the use of 18 pesticide products containing dinotefuran, a type of neonicotinoid. To date, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to take action and has already been sued once by beekeepers and environmental groups for failing to protect bees from neonicotinoid pesticides.

They have also green-lighted another pesticide that is a close cousin to these toxic chemicals (sulfoxaflor) and, as a result, several beekeeping organizations and beekeepers have filed a legal action against the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor, which is considered by many to be a "fourth-generation neonicotinoid. At least, in June 2014, an Executive Order was issued by the US government to investigate pollinator health (including the use of neonicotinoids), although no federal bans have been put in place.

Meanwhile, an independent review by 29 scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (which looked at 800 studies) put another nail in the coffin for neonicotinoids. The study found that neonicotinoids are indeed gravely harming bees and other pollinators (like butterflies). And that's not all. The research also showed serious harm to birds, earthworms, snails, and other invertebrates.8 One of the researchers, Jean-Marc Bonmatin with the National Center for Scientific Research, said:9

"The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT… Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it."

US Fish and Wildlife Service Bans Neonicotinoids from Wildlife Refuges

There has been one noteworthy victory in the US surrounding neonicotinoids. Last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced they would be banning all neonicotinoid insecticides from wildlife refuges across the US by January 2016.10 The move follows a previous announcement that their use would be banned from refuges in the Pacific Northwest. This makes FWS the first federal agency to restrict the use of neonicotinoids based on the precautionary principle. As an aside, the agency also announced it would phase out the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops to feed wildlife in refuges – another environmental victory. National Wildlife Refuge System Chief James Kurth noted:11

“We have determined that prophylactic use, such as a seed treatment, of the neonicotinoid pesticides that can distribute systemically in a plant and can potentially affect a broad spectrum of non-target species is not consistent with Service policy. We make this decision based on a precautionary approach to our wildlife management practices and not on agricultural practices.”

Neonicotinoids Are Contaminating Water, Too

The environmental concerns of neonicotinoids have focused on their role in pollinator health, although new research in Environmental Pollution identified another route of harm: waterways.12 After sampling nine Midwestern stream sites during the 2013 growing season, neonicotinoids were detected at all sites sampled. At different times of the growing season, levels of the insecticides peaked. For instance, after spring planting, levels spiked well above what would be considered toxic for aquatic organisms.13 Furthermore, reduced levels were detected in the waterways even before planting, which indicates that they can "persist from applications in prior years."14 As reported by Mother Jones:15

"These findings directly contradict industry talking points. Older insecticides were typically sprayed onto crops in the field, while neonics are applied directly to seeds, and then taken up by the stalks, leaves, pollen, and nectar of the resulting plants. 'Due to its precise application directly to the seed, which is then planted below the soil surface, seed treatment reduces potential off-target exposure to plants and animals,' Croplife America, the pesticide industry's main lobbying outfit, declared in a 2014 report.

Yet the USGS researchers report that older pesticides that once rained down on the corn/soy belt, like chlorpyrifos and carbofuran, turned up at 'substantially' lower rates in water—typically, in less than 20 percent of samples, compared to the 100 percent of samples found in the current neonic study. Apparently, pesticides that are taken up by plants through seed treatments don't stay in the plants; and neonics, the USGS authors say, are highly water soluble and break down in water more slowly than the pesticides they've replaced."

Other Leading Theories for Bee Die-Offs

Environmental chemicals are a forerunner for what's causing so many bees to die, but it's likely that there are multiple factors at play here. Among the top proposed culprits include:

  • Pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides – Neonicotinoids, such as Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. These are known to get into pollen and nectar, and can damage beneficial insects such as bees.
  • Malnutrition/nutritional deficiencies – Many beekeepers place the hives near fields of identical crops, which may result in malnutrition as the bees are only getting one type of nectar. Essentially, this theory is identical to that of human nutrition; we need a wide variety of nutrients from different foods. If you keep eating the same limited range of foods, you can easily end up suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Poor nutrition suppresses immune function, making the bees far more susceptible to toxins from pesticides, viruses, fungi, or a combination of factors that ultimately kill them.
  • Viruses and fungi – There's even the possibility that some new form of "AIDS-like" viral infection is affecting the bees.
  • Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) – Researchers have discovered that when a cellular phone is placed near a hive, the radiation generated by it (900-1,800 MHz) is enough to prevent bees from returning to them, according to a study conducted at Landau University several years ago.16 More recently, a study published in 2011 found that the presence of microwaves from cell phones have a dramatic effect on bees, causing them to become quite disturbed.17
  • Lack of natural foraging areas – Mass conversions of grasslands to corn and soy in the Midwest (monoculture) has dramatically reduced bees' natural flowering foraging areas.
  • Genetically modified (GM) crops – In 2007, a German study demonstrated that horizontal gene transfer appears to take place between the GM crop and the bees that feed on it. When bees were released in a field of genetically modified rapeseed, and then fed the pollen to younger bees, the scientists discovered the bacteria in the guts of the young ones mirrored the same genetic traits as ones found in the GM crop.

You Can Help: How to Protect the Bees

The Pollinator Partnership has revealed many ways you can help the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.18 Clearly, major steps need to be taken on a national level to protect pollinators from toxic chemicals and other threats, and you can help in this regard by supporting the Save America's Pollinators Act. Friends of the Earth has also launched the Bee-Action Campaign to tell stores to take bee-killing pesticides like neonicotinoids off of their shelves, and you can help by signing their petition now. That said, you can even make a difference right in your own backyard:

  • Reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides
  • Plant a pollinator-friendly garden by choosing a variety of plants that will continue flowering from spring through fall; check out the Bee Smart Pollinator App for a database of nearly 1,000 pollinator-friendly plants
  • Choose plants native to your region and stick with old-fashioned varieties, which have the best blooms, fragrance and nectar/pollen for attracting and feeding pollinators
  • Install your own beehive

Finally, if you would like to learn even more about the economic, political, and ecological implications of the worldwide disappearance of the honeybee, check out the extremely informative documentary film Vanishing of the Bees.