By Genna Reed
Earlier this week, I attended a hearing hosted by the House of Representatives Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture intended “to review current research and application of management strategies to control pests and diseases of pollinators.” Between the end of 2012 and the end of 2013, U.S. beekeepers lost an average of 45 percent of their colonies, which has threatened not only their livelihoods, but the very existence of one of the world’s most vital pollinators. The decline of bee populations across the country at levels higher than ever before seen is good reason for Congress to take notice, not only for the struggling bees, but also for the health of the broader environment, since bees are considered an indicator species of ecosystem health.
Colony Collapse Disorder is the term given to the disappearing-bee situation for which a single cause has not yet been defined. Members of the subcommittee saw the disorder as a problem caused by a wide variety of things, including varroa mites, disease, diet and nutrition, genetics, loss of habitat, beekeeping management practices and last but not least, “improper use of pesticides,” which “may also play a role.” The varroa mite is indeed a serious pest that should absolutely get some credit for bee losses, but it is also serving as the perfect scapegoat for Congress and agrichemical industry forces to take attention away from the harmful pesticide cocktails widely used in agriculture. As Jeff Pettis, Research Leader of the USDA’s Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD, testified, “…even if the varroa mite problem were solved today, this would not by itself solve all of the problems facing honey bees and beekeepers.” The weak language regarding pesticides’ impacts on bee health and the trivialization of the scientific evidence related to the adverse effects of pesticides on bees that was repeated throughout the hearing is a glaring example of how pesticide companies have been instrumental in framing the conversation surrounding bee health.
The type of pesticides targeted by the EU and a bill in Congress to save America’s pollinators, is a family of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or “neonics” for short. These chemicals are systemic, meaning that they become infused into every tissue of the plant whose seed has been coated with them. The mechanism of action of this chemical actually weakens bees’ immune systems, which makes them more vulnerable to pests like varroa mites and other diseases.
During the hearing, David Fischer, Director of Pollinator Safety for Bayer’s North American Bee Care Center, stated that, “for more than 26 years, Bayer has been committed to improving bee health.” Yet in that time, Bayer has actually made millions by developing and selling the very pesticides that are playing a major role in the decline of honeybee populations. In Fischer’s testimony, he wrote, “Contrary to the opinion of some anti-pesticide groups, extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies.” Yet, the extensive science behind neonics and their relationship to pollinator declines is not fueled by “extreme” or “emotional” points of view, as some of the members of the subcommittee seem to think. There is mounting evidence that chronic, low exposure of neonicotinoids is toxic to bees and that these chemicals can stunt bumble bee colony growth and reduce queen numbers. In 2013, the EU banned the major neonicotinoids for two years as a precautionary action in order to complete additional research on the insecticides and their impacts on bee health.
While other countries take action against these bee-killing pesticides, Bayer isn’t the only company desperately employing hard-hitting public relations strategies in order to continue selling its beloved money-making insecticides. Friends of the Earth’s new report, “Follow the Honey,” lays out the public relations campaign that “corporate spin doctors” like Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta have been using to convince our legislators and members of the public that pesticides aren’t harming bees and other pollinators. It’s high time for Congress to quit condoning the actions of the pesticide industry and to work to help save the incredibly essential bee populations in this country.