Bee die-offs could dis­rupt the hu­man food chain

Pes­ti­cide-makers point to other cul­prits in bee die-offs

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

RE­SEARCH TRI­AN­GLE PARK: In a Nordic-in­spired build­ing tucked in a cor­ner of the Bayer CropS­cience North Amer­i­can head­quar­ters, high school stu­dents wan­der through 6,000 square feet ded­i­cated en­tirely to the spe­cial­ness of bees. Chil­dren taste dif­fer­ent types of honey and ex­am­ine the dif­fer­ences be­tween honey­bee and car­pen­ter bee spec­i­mens.

The pes­ti­cide maker high­lights its work to foster the in­sects around the world, wel­com­ing school-age chil­dren at the site built apart from plant re­search labs and ex­ec­u­tive of­fices. Amid the dis­plays are bot­tles of Bayer pes­ti­cides, some­thing that struck Cara Gar­ri­son, a stu­dent at Raleigh’s St Thomas More Acad­emy, as odd. “I thought it was a lit­tle weird to see some of that among all the bee-re­lated things,” Gar­ri­son said. “I was like, is that sup­posed to be there?” That dis­play in that build­ing cap­tures Bayer’s multi-bil­lion-dol­lar bal­anc­ing act.

Tobacco-de­rived chem­i­cals Some of those pes­ti­cides con­tain tobacco-de­rived chem­i­cals called neon­i­coti­noids that many re­searchers say play a role in de­clin­ing bee pop­u­la­tions. Bayer spent $12 mil­lion last year, when it earned prof­its of more than $3.6 bil­lion, pro­mot­ing bee health as the world’s top neonic maker and No 2 Syn­genta fend off sug­ges­tions the chem­i­cals are beekillers. Both com­pa­nies are fight­ing pres­sure from reg­u­la­tors in the US and Europe with public­ity cam­paigns and lob­by­ing aimed at telling peo­ple that neon­ics are ben­e­fi­cial and safe when used cor­rectly, and that bees face greater peril from par­a­sites, pathogens and poor di­ets as wild flow­er­ing plants di­min­ish.

Bee die-offs could dis­rupt the hu­man food chain, with a third of the foods con­sumed by Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans de­pen­dent on pol­li­na­tors like them. Re­searchers sus­pect neonic pes­ti­cides play some role in re­ported die-offs and the mys­te­ri­ous Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der. But they don’t know how much. A com­par­i­son of more than three dozen pes­ti­cides found neon­ics pro­duced by Bayer CropS­cience and Syn­genta among the chem­i­cals most toxic to bees, ac­cord­ing to a Septem­ber study by USDA re­searchers.

Bayer, Syn­genta and Mon­santo - which coats its seeds with neon­ics - are en­cour­ag­ing non­prof­its, landown­ers and gov­ern­ments to plant more flow­ers and other plants bees need to feed. Their rep­re­sen­ta­tives are speak­ing at bee­keep­ers’ con­fer­ences and vis­it­ing agri­cul­tural re­search uni­ver­si­ties. Be­sides invit­ing visi­tors to bee cen­ters on its cor­po­rate cam­puses out­side Raleigh, North Carolina, and Mon­heim, Ger­many, Bayer of­fers teach­ers a down­load­able dig­i­tal science les­son about bees. A com­pany Twit­ter feed promotes the ben­e­fits of neon­ics and stud­ies that re­fute their link to bee deaths, of­ten us­ing the hash­tag #FeedABee.

Big­gest bee-killer A global agro-chem­i­cal trade mag­a­zine re­cently hon­ored Bayer’s pro-bees cam­paign for what judges said was its ef­fort “to broaden un­der­stand­ing and shift con­ver­sa­tion from blam­ing solely pes­ti­cides to­wards a mul­ti­plic­ity of fac­tors.” Crit­ics say that is all lit­tle more than pro­pa­ganda akin to the cig­a­rette in­dus­try’s ef­forts to con­found peo­ple by high­light­ing in­con­clu­sive science. “I call it a red her­ring. You claim that ours isn’t the only prob­lem, so there­fore it isn’t a prob­lem,” said Mas­sachusetts bee­keeper Dick Cal­la­han, a re­tired ex­ec­u­tive with a doc­tor­ate in en­to­mol­ogy who coau­thored a Har­vard study on the ef­fects of neon­ics on hon­ey­bees. The com­pa­nies blame a par­a­sitic mite as the big­gest bee-killer. Cal­la­han said while the mite may be the great­est ad­ver­sary of his hon­ey­bees, it doesn’t ex­plain why mite-free bum­ble bees are also dis­ap­pear­ing.

Neon­ics were a break­through be­cause they can be used to coat seeds rather than sprayed over plants. As the plant sprouts, the chem­i­cal is in­cor­po­rated into ev­ery part of it - from roots, to stalk, to the flow­ers that at­tract bees and but­ter­flies. With­out neon­ics, grow­ers could face ex­ten­sive crop losses since old pes­ti­cides have been phased out be­cause of the haz­ards they posed to hu­mans and wildlife, said Do­minic Reisig, an in­sect re­searcher at North Carolina State Univer­sity who advises farm­ers. “I think the fi­nal ver­dict is still out there” on how large a role neon­ics play in bee deaths, Reisig said. “I would say clearly there’s some­thing there, but is it one per­cent? Ten per­cent? Ninety per­cent? We don’t know.”

Bayer pro­duces three of the world’s top five neonic pes­ti­cides in a world­wide mar­ket es­ti­mated to be worth about $3 bil­lion, with Bayer’s two top-sell­ing prod­ucts tak­ing about half the mar­ket, said San­jiv Rana, ed­i­tor-in-chief of Agrow, a trade pub­li­ca­tion for the agri­cul­tural chem­i­cals in­dus­try. Syn­genta’s best­selling neonic is worth about $1 bil­lion in an­nual sales, Rana said. Becky Langer, the Bayer CropS­cience man­ager for US bee health, de­nied the com­pany’s 4-yearold cam­paign is re­lated to the com­pany’s neonic sales. It grew out of decades of re­search on the in­ter­ac­tion of chem­i­cals and the cru­cial pol­li­na­tors, she said.

Bee num­bers “One didn’t pop up be­cause of the other,” said Langer, whose cen­ter over­sees bee field re­search lo­ca­tions in North Carolina, Cal­i­for­nia and On­tario, Canada. She said: “Bee num­bers are ac­tu­ally not de­clin­ing.” But that de­pends how you count. On the one hand, fig­ures from the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture show there are more bee colonies now than 30 years ago. But those num­bers can be de­ceiv­ing since bee­keep­ers rou­tinely sep­a­rate a healthy hive into two, a prac­tice that helps over­come ac­cepted an­nual losses of about 18 per­cent.

Bee­keeper Steve Hilde­brand, who keeps about 20 hives out­side Raleigh, an­nu­ally di­vides healthy colonies to re­place dead ones. “It’s harder to keep bees than it used to be,” he said. “It seems to get harder ev­ery year.” Losses in the US the past five years have been es­pe­cially acute, with re­ported an­nual losses of 30 per­cent to 45 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a study au­thored by re­searchers in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Den­nis vanEn­gels­dorp. The heavy death toll con­tin­ues through the spring and sum­mer, when bee pop­u­la­tions are col­lect­ing pollen and should be their health­i­est, the study said. —AP

Bees swarm around hon­ey­comb at the Bayer North Amer­i­can Bee Care Cen­ter in Re­search Tri­an­gle Park, NC. — AP pho­tos

Sarah My­ers (right) a man­ager at the Bayer North Amer­i­can Bee Care Cen­ter, shows a tray of bees to St Thomas More Acad­emy stu­dent Maria Pompi (left) dur­ing a tour of the cen­ter in Re­search Tri­an­gle Park, NC.

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