Debate over insecticides and bee health carries high stakes for Triangle

dranii@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2014 

  • Use of neonics widespread

    It’s estimated that roughly 99 percent of the corn seeds planted by U.S. farmers and 75 percent of soybean seeds are treated with neonics, said Larissa Walker of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group.

    If you buy an insecticide at a hardware store, there’s an excellent chance that a neonic will be one of the ingredients.

    Home and garden products that contain neonics include multiple products made by Scotts, including some Ortho brand products, as well as a variety of products made by Bayer, Syngenta, Arysta LifeScience, Lawn and Garden Products, OHP, Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, Valent and others, according to the Center for Food Safety.

— Bayer CropScience’s shiny new $2.4 million North American Bee Care Center demonstrates the company’s commitment to finding ways to improve the health of these vitally important winged insects.

But the very existence of the center is also a symbol of the high stakes at play for Bayer, as well as several other agribusinesses operating in the Triangle, in the debate about insecticides and the alarming rate of bee colony deaths.

Critics say a class of insecticide called neonicotinoids, produced by companies such as Bayer and Syngenta, play a major role in the fragile state of the world’s bee population – which farmers rely on to pollinate many of their crops.

Insecticide makers defend the use of neonicotinoids, commonly called neonics. When used properly, they say, neonics aren’t responsible for killing bee colonies.

They point to studies that show that bee colonies suffer from a cascade of factors, including: pests such as the Varroa mite, which can be deadly to bees; a variety of diseases and fungal infections; extreme weather; and a lack of a diverse food source for bees as development encroaches on their feeding grounds and former pastureland gets planted with crops that aren’t especially nutritious for bees.

“It is equally important to understand that the solution to bee health requires a comprehensive approach,” David Fischer, director of pollinatory safety at Bayer, testified before Congress in April.

The controversy over neonicotinoids – so named because they are chemically similar to nicotine – has boiled over into the policy arena.

In December, the European Union issued a two-year suspension of many uses of three neonics because of concerns about their impact on bee health. A bill calling for a U.S. suspension of neonics has been introduced in Congress. And a coalition of environmental groups and beekeepers has sued the Environmental Protection Agency seeking to suspend the use of two neonics.

The outcome of the debate will impact the future of U.S. farming practices and, one way or another, the bottom line of Triangle agribusinesses.

Germany-based Bayer introduced the first neonics in the U.S. in 1994 and has about 750 employees locally. Another major neonics maker, Switzerland-based Syngenta, has 400 employees in RTP and more than 750 in Greensboro.

BASF, another German company that has 1,050 employees in RTP, doesn’t manufacture neonics but does include them in two of its professional pest control products used to combat roaches, bed bugs and other insects. Likewise, St. Louis-based Monsanto, which has 65 workers locally, uses neonics in some of its insecticides and as a seed coating but doesn’t actually produce neonics.

None of these companies breaks out the revenue they derive from neonic products. But neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the world, with estimated worldwide sales of $3.6 billion. In addition to being used as a spray, neonics have been used extensively in the past decade as a coating for seeds.

“One of the advantages of seed treatments is it helps control insects below ground and helps plants get off to a better start,” said Caydee Savinelli, a Syngenta entomologist.

Dueling studies

Each side in the debate over neonics wields scientific studies that buttress its point of view.

“Every year, every month, more and more science publications come out that link neonics to poor bee health,” said Larissa Walker of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group.

“There are no studies that link neonicotinoids to widespread bee losses,” said Bayer’s Fischer. “There are studies that evaluate exposures under highly artificial laboratory conditions and report effects, and then speculate what this might mean in the environment.”

Studies that have examined what happens “in the field,” he added, “have concluded there is no scientific evidence that links neonicotinoids to these widespread declines in honeybee health that are being observed.”

Some scientists are on the fence.

“The jury is still out” on how significant a role the neonics play in bee health, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland.

Still, he worries that farmers and home gardeners are using neonics indiscriminately.

“I think it could be used much more judiciously,” he said.

There’s no doubt that numerous other factors are in play.

“There is … a general consensus that the causes of (bee) colony mortality are multifactorial and interacting,” stated a USDA report issued last year.

Over the past eight years, an average of 29.6 percent of honey bee colonies maintained by beekeepers have died each winter, according to annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bee Informed Partnership, a group that studies bee health and management.

The latest survey found lower losses of 23.2 percent over the 2013-2014 winter, which is still considered unacceptable. Moreover, losses have dipped before – down to 21.9 percent in 2011-2012 – only to rise again.

Although beekeepers have been able to replace those losses by measures such as splitting a live colony in half and buying a queen bee to repopulate the dead hive, that’s costly and time-consuming. It’s estimated that replacing those lost bees over the past eight years has cost an estimated $2 billion-plus.

The worry is that if such losses continue, it could drive commercial beekeepers out of business, said vanEngelsdorp.

What’s ultimately at stake is the food we put on our dinner table, because bees are credited with pollinating one of every three bites of food we eat.

Despite the heated policy debate over neonics, the lowly Varroa mite – which can be deadly to bees – gets a lot of attention from scientists and beekeepers.

“Varroa destructor is a modern honey bee plague,” Jeff Pettis, the lead researcher at USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory, testified before Congress in April. “It has been responsible for the deaths of massive numbers of colonies both within the United States and worldwide.”

“If I had to single out one factor that we could eliminate completely,” Pettis said in an interview, “I’d just take the Varroa mite out of the picture, and then we could deal with these other problems.”

Beekeepers who treat their hives with chemicals that combat the Varroa mite consistently lose significantly fewer bee colonies than those that don’t, said vanEngelsdorp.

Beekeepers concerned

Danny Jaynes can relate to that.

Jaynes, a retired U.S. Army bandmaster and the immediate past president of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, launched his own research project after 43 out of his 50 hives failed to survive the 2012-2013 winter.

“I’m a master beekeeper. I’m not a novice,” Jaynes said. “When I lost all those bees, I was really buffaloed.”

As part of the research project that he began in May 2013, Jaynes set aside six hives and didn’t treat them for the Varroa mite. So far, he has lost five of those six hives.

Jaynes, whose hives are scattered in eight locations across the state, said he has taken care to locate his hives well away from farms that use neonics, so they “are not that great of a threat” to his operation.

“But,” he added, “I have a lot of beekeepers (in the state association) who are very concerned because they have a lot of hives in areas where neonics are being used.”

The characteristics that have made neonics the No. 1 insecticide are the same characteristics that have attracted concern.

“What is great about neonics is they are systemic,” said vanEngelsdorp. “You paint a little bit on the seed, and the plant sucks it up. Then when (an insect) eats the leaf, it dies. This prevents you from having to go and spray that crop several times.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “some of this gets into the pollen and nectar, and that is where it poses a risk to pollinators” – that is, bees.

The Center for Food Safety’s Walker argues that although there are certainly many factors threatening bee health, neonics is one that could be easily controlled by halting its use.

“We know, and the science increasingly shows, that neonics exacerbate all these other factors,” she said. “They make the bees more susceptible to the threat of the Varroa mite, to the threat of the Nosema virus, to the threat of poor nutrition.”

One of the latest studies to point a finger at neonics was led by Chensheng “Alex” Lu of Harvard. That study found that 6 of 12 bee colonies exposed to “low levels” of neonics died over the winter, whereas hives that weren’t exposed mostly survived.

“The point our study tried to make is that this is the only environmental factor, if you want to call it that, that could trigger” widespread colony deaths, Lu said.

But some scientists are critical of Lu’s study.

VanEngelsdorp called the study “seriously flawed” because it used higher levels of neonics than bees would typically encounter in fields.

“It’s not surprising if you feed high levels of pesticides to bees that it will kill them, because they are insects,” he said.

Lu defended the level of neonics he used in his study.

‘Weak evidence’

On the other side of the ledger, an article published last month in a British scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, surveyed the studies done to date and concluded there’s insufficient evidence to indict neonics as causing the surge in bee colony deaths.

“The weak evidence base cannot at present resolve this question,” the article noted.

Back at the Bayer bee care center in RTP, the team members include Sarah Myers, the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.

Myers, who is the center’s event manager and apiarist – a fancy name for “beekeeper” – said some beekeepers questioned her decision to go to work for Bayer.

Myers said her interest was piqued when she saw “an industry leader like Bayer has taken the initiative to invest in honeybees. … I thought it was very impressive they were building the center, they had another research facility in Germany, and a whole team of folks devoted to honeybee research.”

She said she’s now fielding questions from fellow beekeepers: What research is the center doing? Or, “Can you help me with my hive? Maybe some of your scientists can give you insight.”

“It’s better to be on the side of learning,” she added, “than just saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with them.’ It’s been a great experience overall.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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