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Shedding Light on Three Big Lies About Systemic Pesticides and Bees
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Shedding Light on Three Big Lies About Systemic Pesticides and Bees

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Recently, a friend sent me the article “Bee Deaths Reversal: As Evidence Points Away From Neonics As Driver, Pressure Builds To Rethink Ban.” The wordy title hinting that systemic pesticides are safe seemed suspect, but because the op-ed was published in Forbes, a reputable publication, I knew many would read it as bona fide truth. I would have too, if I hadn’t studied bees and colony collapse disorder for the past eight years. I am the director of a documentary film called Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page. I owe my life to the bees in many respects.

Nowadays, an increasing amount of blatant misinformation is being planted in the media about honeybees and the systemic pesticides that are killing them. Unlike typical pesticides, which are applied topically, systemic pesticides are entrenched in the soil or embedded in the seed so that the poisons are taken up by the plant and transported to all its tissues, including roots, stems, leaves, pollen and nectar.

Critics describe Jon Entine as an “agribusiness apologist,” “pseudo-journalist” and “biotech shill.”

Just a few days before I saw the Forbes article, I’d spotted another pesticide-friendly article on The Huffington Post: “Bee Experts Dismantle Touted ‘Harvard’ Neonics-Colony Collapse Disorder Study As ‘Activist Science.'” Sure enough, both pieces were written by the same person. Who is this person, and why the sudden interest in disputing the effects of neonicotinoids on declining bee populations?

Suspecting ties to agribusiness, I did some research and quickly discovered that Jon Entine has written pieces defending genetically modified (GMO) crops, the cancer-causing herbicide atrazine and the toxic compound BPA.

Critics describe Entine as an “agribusiness apologist,” “pseudo-journalist” and “biotech shill.”

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones’ food and agriculture correspondent, uncovered three years ago that Entine, who describes himself as an “author, think tank scholar, leadership and sustainability consultant, media commentator, and public speaker on the DNA of human behavior,” has indirectly worked for Monsanto and has ties to Syngenta, the agrichemical company that makes atrazine and neonicotinoids (neonics).

At some point, it seems that this chemical company looked to hire some reporters to spin poisons – literally, chemicals designed to kill – in their favor.

“[Jon Entine] is hardly qualified to judge anyone on anything,” says Tom Theobald, an activist and beekeeper, who has repeatedly lost bees to neonics. “He is guilty of exactly what he would criticize others of – ‘. . . sloppy reporting to create a false narrative – a storyline with a strong bias that is compelling, but wrong.'”

According to Mike Adams, “Entine has been instrumental in viciously smearing the reputations of numerous scientists, activists, independent journalists and environmentalists, usually through the use of wildly fraudulent smear tactics and the wholesale fabrication of false ‘facts’ which he weaves into deranged articles.”

Let’s set the record straight on some of the broad-stroke inaccuracies that Entine tries to pass off as truth about honeybees and neonics.

LIE #1: Mounting Evidence Shows Neonics Are Safe for Bees

“If the Environmental Protection Agency moves to restrict neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides because of fears that they are causing bee deaths, it will happen in spite of the mounting evidence rather than because of it,” Entine begins his Forbes piece.

In the United States, the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been devastating bees since 2006, when commercial beekeepers began finding their hives empty except for a clump of young bees and a queen. A healthy colony usually consists of about 50,000 bees, many of them workers. But with CCD, the bees vanish and soon the hive fails. Some 10 million hives, $2 billion worth of honeybees, have died since.

The truth: Neonics are one of the most toxic classes of chemicals to bees and will kill bees and other beneficial insects, even at very, very low levels.

According to Entine, the “cause of the mysterious surge [of deaths] is still unclear.” He downplays the negative effects of neonics, stating that “the vast majority of scientists who study bees for a living disagree – vehemently” they’re the driving force behind bee deaths. He also spins passages out of context from other articles (like misquoting Philpott to make it seem as if he is dismissing neonics), and interviews a select few people like “annoyingly skeptical” beekeeper scientist Randy Oliver who – to quote a passage by a California beekeeper – “has positioned himself . . . somewhere between big bee and big brother.”

The truth: Neonics are one of the most toxic classes of chemicals to bees and will kill bees and other beneficial insects, even at very, very low levels. In fact, systemic pesticides have been shown to be 5,000 to 10,000 times more toxic than DDT. (To compare: the systemic pesticide clothianidin is 10,800 times more toxic).

Consider this: It’s 1994, and Gaucho, a pesticide containing the neonicotinoid chemical imidacloprid as its active ingredient, is introduced in France on sunflower crops. Soon after, beekeepers start losing bees en masse. At first, they blame themselves and then varroa mites, before finally realizing these newfangled systemic pesticides are the heart of the problem. Lab tests find Gaucho in the pollen of flowers, and beekeepers describe bees as disoriented after foraging.

Neonics are peddled as “safer” than foliar-applied organophosphates that are far more dangerous to humans and the environment – with a “comparatively benign toxicological profile,” according to Entine.

Yet neonics are anything but benign. Unlike older pesticides, which are easy to implicate in bee deaths because you can see the little bodies writhing to their deaths at the foot of the hive, systemic pesticides operate on an insidious level. The doses are sublethal so the bees don’t die outright. And when they do so, it’s likely in the fields.

Neonics are embedded in seeds, which means the poison is absorbed and becomes part of the actual plant. They are also extremely persistent, water soluble and mobile, causing widespread contamination of soil, water and critical ecosystems.

There are numerous ways for honeybees to come into contact with toxic neonics: exposure from foliar sprays, dust from neonics-coated seeds during planting, neonic-contaminated water, dew droplets, soil, and even nectar and pollen from flowers that have absorbed these poisons. The bees then gather the pollen and bring it back to the hive, where they store it – thus affecting future generations.

Scientists have found up to 17 different pesticides in one tiny grain of pollen. In fact, bees have been described as “flying dust mops.”

Neonics don’t kill bees outright. Sublethal effects reported in scientific literature include a range of behavioral disturbances in honeybees. They inflict chronic, sublethal damage by weakening their immune systems, disrupting digestion, impairing navigational abilities and subtly harming the brain. These effects can be particularly detrimental to colonial insects like honeybees. Even small levels of neonics can affect their homing capacity and impair their ability to detect odors – two crucial factors in their ability to forage for food.

“Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineers, and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew the systemic pesticide clothianidin (often used on corn) was toxic to bees before the pesticide’s release in 2003. The manufacturer, Bayer, gained the agency’s approval after producing a required study, which has since been deemed flawed by the EPA. (The EPA does not conduct any independent studies. Instead, it relies on the data provided by the chemical companies themselves. The fox guarding the hen house, anyone?)

It’s 2006 and the same chain of events occurs in the United States: Neonics figure prominently in the environment; millions of bees die; beekeepers blame themselves; they eventually suspect neonics, and on and on. Rinse and repeat. Similar stories are also reported in countries such as Germany, England, Italy, and most recently, Canada and Australia.

Sheer coincidence or empirical data?

In his Huffington Post piece, Entine attacks Chensheng Lu, a School of Public Health professor at Harvard, who came out with a landmark study in 2014, illustrating a definitive link between neonics and CCD. Entine, who calls Lu the “Dr. Doom of honey bees,” points to several holes in his study. He also quotes Randy Oliver, who has said that Lu is not competent to study bees and is “just a media publicity seeker.”

Entine focuses on one article and acts like he’s debunked the entire connection between neonics and bees. He couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not like there are a shortage of peer-reviewed studies that highlight the negative impacts of neonic use. The International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, for instance, has evaluated more than 850 publications on systemic pesticides.

“The evidence is very clear,” according to lead author Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France. “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 neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineers, and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

Today, neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the entire world, with more than 500 different neonicotinoid products on the market, and applications estimated to exceed 200 million acres annually nationwide.

Entine goes on to say that “in panic mode, the default of agencies under the microscope is often, ‘when in doubt, regulate.'”

I wish that were the default, but in reality, we do not operate under the precautionary principle in this country, which is why neonics have continued to remain on the market despite faulty studies, and despite the fact they’ve contaminated waterways and have been linked to negative effects on developing brains.

Entine and his powerful friends don’t have to fret, as the EPA announced it wouldn’t complete its regulatory review for several more years. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, however, will ban neonics in wildlife refuges starting in 2016.

LIE #2: Honeybee Colonies Are on the Rise

Bees have been dying at a steady clip since 2006. In 2014, some states reported more than 50 percent losses. Many beekeepers who have been in business for generations have had to burn their hives (because the chemicals stick around in the hives, preventing them from being reused) and close shop, while others have resorted to all kinds of last-ditch tricks. Many beekeepers are forced to hide their bees in forests away from conventional crops that have been treated with systemic pesticides in the hopes that they will recover from the onslaught of chemicals they come into contact with.

Yet, according to Entine, “the numbers simply don’t support the ‘beepocalypse’ narrative.” He includes impressive charts and figures and refers to Scientific American’s Francie Diep who noted “honeybee colony numbers have been stable for years at about 2.5 million even as neonics usage became more widespread.”

So what’s going on? Well, bees are at the forefront of our consciousness now more than ever before, and as a result we are experiencing a burgeoning interest in urban beekeeping all over the country. So, yes, technically, hives are on the rise. Statistics include these new populations, and urban beekeepers are not experiencing abnormally high bee kill incidents because they’re not near major agricultural areas where neonics are used.

Secondly, bees regenerate quickly. A queen can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day. And commercial beekeepers “split” hives: a practice in which you divide one hive into two by introducing an artificially raised queen to the new half. Beekeepers are now splitting one hive into four, which is hardly sustainable. But it keeps the hive numbers up. Commercial beekeepers also work double time, trucking bees all over the country and tricking bees into thinking it’s spring to keep baby-laying going all year round.

None of these stop-gap practices can be sustained in the long term.

LIE #3: Bees Are Thriving in Australia Despite Neonics

Entine writes that the government of Australia, where neonics are used extensively, reaffirmed in February 2014 that “honeybee populations are not in decline despite the increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.”

But, according to Theobald, bees and neonics cannot live together happily ever after: “The exact opposite is true – beekeepers exposed to the neonics are seeing the same horrible damages as the U.S. and the rest of the world. Australia’s equivalent of the EPA has been corrupted just like the EPA has. . . . This is tragic shortsightedness on a global scale.”

Indeed, 85 percent of the whole insecticide market in Australia is made up of neonics. They were used in the mid-1990s, though only in very small amounts; the market blossomed in the past five years with the introduction of neonicotinoid-coated genetically modified seeds, according to Australian Jeffrey Gibbs of Northern Light Candle Company. He’s been beekeeping for nearly two decades in northern New South Wales.

“I can tell you with all certainty that neonicotinoids are killing and damaging thousands of beehives in Australia. But beekeepers won’t speak up because they need the relationship with the farmers,” Gibbs writes.

Gibbs also remarks that while old organophosphates kill bees outright, death via neonics is very slow and more pervasive. It can take the hive down over months and it can take months to bring the bees back.

“The fuckers . . . so much money and lobbying behind them,” Gibbs recently told Theobald via email.

Beekeepers in Australia have been able to survive, Gibbs says, because after being exposed to neonics, they can run their hive into the forests for fresh nectar and pollen (primarily red gum and iron bark trees).

Entine gives advocacy groups and activist journalists a lot of credit for “driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch.” He also describes us as an irrational and indecisive lot. He writes:

Like the fictional parents in the edgy comedy show South Park who blame Canada for all of their woes, activists often coalesce around an issue and then come up with a simple but sometimes simplistic narrative to frame it. Strident opponents of modern agricultural technology initially blamed GMOs for bee deaths, and some still make that claim, although there is zero evidence to back it up. When that didn’t get traction, the focus switched to neonics.

This is precisely why we need to get our facts straight when it comes to CCD, or we lose credibility.

“Will (regulators) examine the evidence? Or will politics drive the science?” Entine wonders.

Finally, we agree. Because I am asking myself the very same thing.

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