Pesticide firms compete to showcase bee-protection programmes

Monsanto’s “Bee Summits” and Bayer AG’s “Bee care centre” are the latest examples of how pesticide makers are competing to showcase their goodwill to policymakers in Europe and the US that they are taking the necessary steps to protect bee populations. The companies say their pesticides are not the problem, but critics say science shows the opposite.

The European Union announced earlier this month it would ban the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or "neonics," used for corn and other crops as well as on home lawns and gardens. The ban is in place for two years.

Similar constraints in the United States could cost manufacturers millions of dollars in sales.

As a result, Monsanto is hosting a "Bee Summit." Bayer AG is breaking ground on a "Bee Care Centre." And Sygenta AG is funding grants for research into the accelerating demise of honeybees in the United States.

Die-offs of bee populations have accelerated over the last few years to a rate the American government calls unsustainable. Honeybees pollinate plants that produce roughly 25% of the foods Americans consume, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports.

Scientists, consumer groups, beekeepers and others blame the devastating rate of bee deaths on the growing use of pesticides sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn. Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and other agrichemical companies say other factors such as mites are killing the bees.

"This is a difficult, high stakes battle," said Peter Jenkins, a lawyer with the Centre for Food Safety, which sued the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March on behalf of a group of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups over what they say is a lack of sound regulation of the pesticides in question.

"They may have a lot of money. But… we're going to win," Jenkins said.

The uproar worries officials at Bayer and Syngenta, who make the pesticides, as well as Monsanto, DuPont and other companies who used them as coatings for the seed they sell.

"Everybody is concerned by it," said Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley in an interview.

Monsanto plans to host a summit in June for experts from around the country to analyse the issue and discuss potential solutions. Bayer is breaking ground on a facility in North Carolina to study bee health.

"We are concerned… that the science sometimes gets trumped by the politics," said Dave Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer CropScience who is meeting with bee keepers and studying the bee deaths. He said critics "are searching for a culprit."

The companies point to a vicious insect mite as one of many factors harming the bees.

More research planned

But environmental scientists say evidence increasingly points to pesticides coating corn seeds as the problem, not mites. In recent years, US corn seed suppliers have offered more corn seed pre-treated with types of neonic insecticides so that as the plant grows it repels harmful pests.

A study published last year by scientists at Purdue University in Indiana found evidence that planting the coated corn generates dust that contains very high levels of the neonics that can move beyond the fields where the seeds are planted. The researchers said they found the poison in the soil as well and in pollen collected by bees as food. The neonics were present on dead bees collected for study.

The study's co-author, Purdue University scientist Christian Krupke, said the issue needs more research.

Syngenta and Bayer say they are doing just that. This month both companies announced they were helping fund research grants awarded to Iowa State University and Ohio State University and a Canadian farm group to study the impact of insecticidal seed treatment dust on bee losses.

"This research will provide valuable information," Jay Overmeyer, an ecotoxicology expert at Syngenta, said in a statement.

Background

The EU-funded STEP project recommends several ways farmers can protect bee populations:

  • Try to avoid those pesticides known to have negative impacts on bees;
  • Reduce the use of herbicides which suppress flowering plants;
  • Leave uncultivated flower rich patches in farmland where pollinators can benefit from flowers and nesting resources;
  • Plant mass-flowering crops (oilseed, clover and field beans) as part of rotations to provide extra nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.

Timeline

  • 1 July: Commission aims to have new regulation passed suspending use of the three neonicitinoid pesticides

Further Reading