Shedding Light On 3 Big Lies About Systemic Pesticides

Sean Winters (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sean Winters (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are ridiculous inconsistencies being planted in the media, sprouting forth poisoned truth about the honeybees and the systemic pesticides killing them. This beckons the question: to what extend does Big Agriculture influence the way science is researched and reported in order to benefit their corporate agendas and pockets? Or do they sincerely believe they can ‘feed the world’ with this shit?

Recently a friend sent me an article titled 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 piece was published in Forbes, a reputable publication, I knew many would read it as bonafide 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.

Ironically, I had come across another pesticide-friendly article on The Huffington Post, just a few days prior, called Bee Experts Dismantle Touted ‘Harvard’ Neonics-Colony Collapse Disorder Study As ‘Activist Science’. Sure enough, both pieces were written by the same person. Who was 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 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, a respected fellow journalist and the food and Ag correspondent for Mother Jones, had already done some digging, confirming my suspicions. Philpott uncovered 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.

At some point, it seems that this chemical company looked to hire some reporters to spin poisons in their favor. (We do realize that we are talking about poisons, right? Chemicals designed to kill. Do I need science to tell me that I don’t want that in my food or in my environment no matter how harmless they tell me it is? If atrazine can make even one male frog turn into a female, I don’t want it anywhere near me. PERIOD.)

“[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.’”

So let’s set the record straight on some of the broad stroke inaccuracies that Jon Entine convincingly and impressively tries to pass off as truth about honey bees and neonics.

LIE #1: Mounting Evidence Shows Neonics Are Safe On 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,” starts Entine’s Forbes piece.

In the United States, the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has been devastating bees since 2006; when commercial beekeepers such a David Hackenberg began popping lids only to find their hives were empty except for a clump of young bees and a queen.

According to Entine, the ‘cause of the mysterious surge 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 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 at nanogram levels. In fact, systemic pesticides have been shown to be 50,-00 to 10,000 times more toxic than DDT. (To compare: clothianidin is 10, 800 times more toxic).

Consider this: It’s 1994, and Gaucho, which is a product containing the neonicotinoid chemical Imidacloprid as its active ingredient, is introduced in France. Soon after, beekeepers start losing bees on masse. At first they blame themselves and then the varroa mites before finally realizing these new-fangled 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;’ with a “comparatively benign toxicological profile,” according to Entine. They are “hailed by many scientists as a less toxic replacement” to foliar-applied organophosphates that are far more dangerous to humans and the environment.

I would argue that neonics are anything but benign. At least with older pesticides it’s easy to implicate them with bee deaths because the bees can be seen dying, whereas systemic pesticides are much more insidious. Neonics are embedded in the seed, 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 take gather and bring back to the hive, thus affecting future generations.

Scientists have found up to 17 different pesticides in one teeny grain of pollen. In fact, bees have been described as ‘flying dust mops.’ (After studying collapsed hives, in 2007 USDA scientists reported at least 50 different pesticides were in 98 percent of the comb and wax.)

Even if neonics don’t kill bees outright, they inflict chronic sub-lethal 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.

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

It’s 2006: the same chain of event occurs in America; neonics figure prominently in the environment, millions of bees die, beekeepers blame themselves, they eventually suspect neonics, yada,yada. 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 the HuffPo 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. Reporter Z, who calls Lu the “Dr. Doom of honey bees,” points to several holes in his study. He also quotes 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 than 850 publications on systemic pesticides.

“The evidence is very clear,” says 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 over 500 different neonicotinoid products on the market, and applications estimated to exceed 200 million acres annually nationwide.

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

Harrumph. I wish that was 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 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 won’t complete its regulatory review for several more years. The U.S. 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 away from conventional fields 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 that “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 being used overwhelmingly.

Secondly, bees regenerate quickly. A queen can lay up to 2500 eggs a day. And commercial beekeepers ‘split’ hives. That’s when you take one hive and split it 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 numbers up. Commercial beekeepers also work double time, trucking bees all over the country and tricking bees into thinking its spring to keep baby-laying going all year round.

LIE #3: Bees Thriving In Oz Despite Neonics

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

He wants us to think that bees and neonics can live together happily ever after. But, says Theobald, “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 are now neonics. They were used in the mid 90’s though only in very small amounts. The market really blossomed in the past five years with the introduction of neonicotinoid-coated genetically modified seeds, remarks Australian Jeffrey Gibbs of Northern Light Candle Company. He’s been beekeeping for nearly two decades in Northern NSW.

“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,” says Gibbs.

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.”

Beekeepers in Australia have been able to survive, explains Gibbs, 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).

 

Activists Are Anti-Pesticide Whackos

Entine gives advocacy groups and activist journalists a lot of credit for ‘driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch.’ If only it were that easy. 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?” wonders Entine. Finally, we agree. Because I am asking myself the very same thing.

 

Maryam Henein (maryam@honeycolony.com) is founder and editor-in-chief of HoneyColony. Follow her on Twitter @maryamhenein.

This article originally appeared on Truth-out.org and it has been republished with the author’s permission.

Maryam Henein

I am an activist, investigative journalist and the founder of HoneyColony. I love to dance. I am a yogi who geeks out on food security issues.