For centuries, physicians have been controlling human diseases using all the tools available to them: proper nutrition of patients, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through medicines, including those derived from natural sources, chemicals and with more recent innovations, such as gene editing.
Likewise, farmers also control plant and animal diseases using the same approaches — proper plant and animal nutrition, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through natural, chemical and genetic sources.
Are bees endangered because of the use of insecticides, and in particular the class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which are used on many crops?
It’s a debate that’s played out in research laboratories and in the media over the past decade since the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder roiled the bee industry in California and elsewhere in North American and Europe beginning in 2006-7.
Needless to point out to those who have followed the neonics controversy, this is a highly politicized issue. Most people with a stake in this debate, including entomologists, farmers and beekeepers, are genuinely struggling to understand the complex factors behind why bees face a host of problems, from attacks from the killer varroa destructor mite to the overuse of insecticides to kill them and the pervasive use of agricultural pesticides. But in the media and in cyberspace, hyperbole and ideology have come to eclipse rational discussion and the sometimes plodding pace of science. The highly-charged debate now pits activists, including some advocacy-minded scientists, against the agro-chemical industry and many scientists who view neonics as a relatively minor driving force in the health issues confronting honeybees and bumble bees.
One resource that has often been looked upon by the media as an objective source is the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP)—a US Department of Agriculture project developed in cooperation with University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Each year in the spring it releases an annual U.S. ‘bee hive loss estimate’. Each year, it seems, the report frames the debate over whether the ‘bee crisis’ is accelerating or abating.
Media v Science?
The popular narrative among journalists and on the Internet in recent years has been that honey bees and wild bees face impending doom—it’s been dubbed a beepocalypse or beemageddon, with most of the ire focused on a class of pesticides, applied mostly as a seed coating, known as neonicotinoids. The insecticide was introduced in the 1990s in large part to replace chemicals that were demonstrably hurting bees and posed human health dangers as well.
Bee health is a genuine concern. After all they are trucked around from farm to farm as insect livestock. And entomologists and the USDA say that varroa mites have been infesting bee hives at an accelerating rate over the past few decades, and present a serious and on-going threat. Pesticides rank low as a likely cause of bee health problems, contend most entomologists, but that’s not the way the issue has played out in the media and online.
Anti-pesticide campaigners have long rejected the conclusions of government agencies and scientists, deciding that bee health issues could not be driven by something as prosaic as a well-known parasite, and have focused instead on neonics.
The question of the relative role of neonics in bee health is fascinating because of the split in the science—some lab studies point to potential serious problems linked to one or more of the neonics but field research, meta-studies and the hard numbers worldwide—bee hives are at record numbers globally—tell a much different story.
The release of BIP’s death count has become a spring ritual followed closely by those invested in beepocalypse narrative; in years when the BIP loss numbers have been high, the media has generally taken them as confirmation that the disaster has finally arrived. Activists fill the social media echo chamber with scare blogs, which they often use as an anchor issue for fund raising or campaigns.
But the most recent year’s survey results didn’t exactly support that narrative. Over-winter losses, which is when bees face severe threats from cold weather, were 21.1%, the lowest in the 10 years the survey has been in existence. Taken together with previous years’ findings, the 2016-17 number continues a downward trend of over-winter losses that, on the current path, will reach the 15% goal set in the 2015 National Pollinator Strategy by 2024.Seven years ago, however, BIP began collecting survey responses on in-season (summertime) honeybee losses as well. However, combining in-season and over-winter losses can result in an alarming and spectacularly misleading loss number. For example, in 2016, it was 44%, making it appear that nearly half of all US honeybees had died, which is exactly how most of the media reported it.
In the latest reporting year, 2016-17, the combined result was lower: 33.2%. This was the second lowest in the seven years of reporting combined statistics, but it was still an occasion for apocalyptic headlines: “A third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died last year,” headlined USA Today. Time, which ran a scare cover story years ago pondering “A World Without Bees”—an article criticized by numerous scientists—stayed true to form, headlining: “Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues.”
That’s shallow journalism. While the Bee Informed Partnership’s combined loss numbers generate media attention, they provide a very thin sliver of the picture bee health, and the numbers themselves are easily manipulated to fit a narrative. There are three major reasons why:
The first reason is that the macro statistics of the total bee population tell a different story than the BIP numbers. The previous year, when it was reported that “a third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died”, the US honeybee population actually reached a 22-year high. The untold story in the popular media, although reported on science-based websites like the GLP and on university and bee expert sites, is that despite some ups and downs, the number of honeybee colonies has remained remarkably stable since the mid-1990s, when neonicotinoids were introduced.
They’ve hovered around 2.5 million hives in the US, even through the challenges of Colony Collapse Disorder from 2006-2010, with the last five years seeing significant growth in bee numbers. There was indeed a sharp dive in US bee numbers in the eighties and early nineties, when the Varroa mite invaded the US, but those declines leveled off and eventually reversed in the years neonics have been on the market. Overall numbers are steady or increasing in Canada, Europe and on every continent except Antarctica (where there are no honeybees), over the last 20 years—the entire period that neonicotinoid pesticides have been on the market.
USDA annual report on honey-producing colonies in the U.S. (USDA publishes its final statistics one year after preliminary estimates); Canada; Global/FAO 1/FAO 2
Based on government statistics, bee population worldwide trend has been positive for over half a century. Between 1995 and 2014, we have seen the following increases in honeybee populations:
- North America: +8%
- Europe: +10%
- Africa: +19%
- South America: +43%
- Asia: +43%
- Ocenia: +30%
Despite these rising trends, inflammatory media stories and the NGO social media echo chamber have won the day in Europe, where politicians have put aside the findings of entomologists and appear to be preparing to not only extend their “temporary” 2013 ban, but expand it to almost all uses, even on crops bees never visit. The same activist groups – and of course the media – continue to exert enormous political pressure in the US to follow suit. So far, EPA appears to be resisting, as their recent draft assessments of the three largest selling neonics suggests, but many close observers of the agency believe the process has been touch and go for some time.
How and why bees naturally die off and beekeepers replenish hives
A new Bee Informed Partnership report will be out in a few months. It will be interesting to see if reporters make the distinction between the normal seasonal bee colony losses experienced by beekeepers, which have been a factor in beekeeping since time immemorial, and overall population trends.
Bees reproduce very rapidly—the normal life-span of a worker bee in the summer months is only 6 weeks—and so beekeepers can rebuild their hives very rapidly as well. Not long ago, many beekeepers in northern latitudes, particularly in Canada, where intense cold makes keeping bees over winter a challenge, would empty their hives of bees, harvest all the honey in them, and start over with new queens and purchased ‘packaged bees’ the next spring. They had a self-inflicted 100% loss rate. But they had healthy, thriving bee populations throughout the summer and a stable, thriving beekeeping industry as well.
Colony losses, whether overwinter or in the spring, represent an economic cost to beekeepers, and they can provide clues to overall hive health. But the numbers we see in recent years do not portend calamity. In fact, they can, and do, rise and fall with little effect on the total number of beehives in the country, or in the world—which is almost entirely determined by how many bee colonies beekeepers decide to “grow.” This, in turn, is largely determined by economic considerations—the price of honey or the going rate for pollination services.
Predictably, however, every time the Bee Informed Partnership releases its headline-grabbing annual loss number, the media prophesizes doom. A rough analogy might be if a stock market survey only reported those stocks that had experienced losses at some point during the year, without bothering to mention that overall the market was steady or rising.
One might argue that it’s not BIP’s responsibility to ensure that the media doesn’t misinterpret or misuse its statistics. Fair enough. There’s also no question that Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who initiated the BIP, is someone dedicated to the welfare of honeybees and beekeepers. It was vanEngelsdorp and a co-author who conducted the first research into the mysterious disappearance of worker bees from the hive, a phenomenon they dubbed Colony collapse Disorder”, and he has been one of the nation’s foremost investigators of the many diseases afflicting bees today.
All of this, however, simply casts the problems with the bee loss survey into starker relief. Any scientist—or indeed any competent science reporter—taking a close look at the BIP’s methodology would have to acknowledge that it suffers from numerous limitations, and some of them are so severe that they make its results practically meaningless as a guide to the true state of bee populations.
Not all bee health data are created equal
This brings us to the second big problem: the BIP’s numbers are drawn from a voluntary survey, to which most beekeepers don’t bother to respond. In fact, BIP data typically represent only a small fraction of all beekeepers in the US—about 13% for 2016-17. That would be a large enough sample for a scientifically randomized poll, as we’ve grown accustomed to in politics. But BIP simply mails its questionnaire to beekeepers and tallies up the results of those who send it back. As the respondents are self-selected, one would intuitively assume that the results would be biased toward beekeepers with serious loss problems.
And indeed, this appears to be the case. The vast majority of respondents are small or hobby beekeepers, with only a vanishingly small fraction of commercial beekeepers—1.4%—participating. There are in fact many more hobby beekeepers in the US than commercial bee keepers, but they represent a small fraction of the overall bee colonies.
Why does this matter? It’s well known that many small and hobby beekeepers have the worst bee problems, most likely because of inexperience. They often neglect to treat for varroa and other diseases and can have much higher losses. BIP’s survey, however, has no mechanism for adjusting for these biases and it performs no analysis of the data to make its conclusions more representative.
One sees this clearly as well in the enormous regional disparities. Twice as many honeybee colonies are located west of the Mississippi as east of it, but twice as many beekeepers are located east of the Mississippi. In other words, larger beekeeping operations in the west; smaller and backyard/hobbyist beekeepers in the east. But the over-concentration of BIP respondents in one region —or even in certain states within regions—can easily skew the results. In the 2015-16 BIP survey, for instance, Ohio and Pennsylvania were heavily over-represented (with some colonies from those states being double-counted for Florida as well).
And the spotty, inconsistent nature of the survey can create huge distortions. In one case, a single queen breeder in California reportedly engaged the BIP investigators to survey his operations in California and Montana – yielding more than 10 times the number of BIP data points from his operations alone than for the entire remainder of California. In another instance in Montana, a single large operator who experienced devastating losses (due to error, carelessness or bad luck) caused the state to be depicted by BIP as a ‘heavy loss’ state even though none of the other beekeepers in the state experienced abnormal losses.
Given the BIP survey’s limitations, and particularly its skewed representation of the size and geography of the beekeeping operations responding, perhaps its findings would be more useful if they were portrayed not as national honey bee colony loss statistics, which they are not, but rather as the losses experienced by those sectors of the beekeeping industry that actually respond to the BIP survey.
Do other US bee hive data present a similar, problematic picture?
A third reason to be skeptical of the value of the BIP survey is that we have a more comprehensive survey conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Not surprisingly, it paints a very different picture of honeybees, and yields a much more dynamic picture of beekeepers’ operations over the course of the year. Unlike BIP, the NASS constructed a stratified sample of honey operations with which the Department has regular contact, backed up by telephone calls and, when necessary, enumeration for non-respondents. USDA charted colony losses, colonies added or renovated and total honeybee colonies in the U.S. by quarter, January 1, 2015 through March 1, 2016.
Over the course of those 15 months, the total number of U.S. honeybee colonies fluctuated dramatically from a high of 3.1 million to a low, in the survey’s last quarter, of 2.6 million, with most quarters registering more than 2.8 million colonies. Along with losses, the NASS also charts additions. For examples, a total of 662 thousand colonies were added and 693 thousand colonies were “renovated” in just the one quarter of April-June 2015.
In other words, normal beekeeping operations, in which operators decide to add or shed colonies in response to market conditions (demand and price, domestically and abroad, for different types and grades of honey, and/or anticipated commercial pollination needs and opportunities) can easily cause the total number of U.S. honey bee colonies to fluctuate by almost 20% within a 15-month period—even while populations compared year to year are steady or growing.
This underscores the mistake of imagining U.S. honeybee colonies as a sort of natural population subject only to declines caused by environmental factors (e.g., pesticides). Rather, state-by-state and nationally, farmers and beekeepers are constantly adding to, fine-tuning and sometimes deliberately reducing their numbers of honey bee colonies in response to economic incentives. BIP’s self-selected and less-inclusive survey data needs to be compared with more comprehensive USDA data to be seen in proper perspective.
One fortunate upshot of all of these survey efforts to assess honeybee losses of recent years is that they have thrown into relief the real, critical problem facing honeybees. It’s varroa mites—not pesticides, and particularly not neonicotinoiod pesticides that consistently rank among the least detected residues in honeybee colonies. Recent years’ Bee Informed Partnership surveys have correctly highlighted parasitic varroa and the dozen or more viruses and diseases that they vector into honey beehives as the #1 threat to honey bees.
USDA’s NASS survey points to the same conclusion. So, does the practical experience of beekeepers in Australia, where there are no varroa mites, and Alberta, Canada, where authorities have made varroa control the overwhelming priority for beekeepers. This conclusion has been further reinforced by the 2016 multi-year study of disease incidence in honeybees co-authored by none other than vanEngelsdorp. It found varroa prevalence (as well as the bee gut fungus/parasite Nosema ceranae) among U.S. bee colonies far more extensive than previously thought and identified these, along with Deformed Wing Virus, as the principal scourges of honeybees today.
So, why aren’t we concentrating on addressing the acknowledged parasite threat? One reason is that the varroa mite problem is very hard to address—trying to ‘kill a bug on a bug’, keeping one of them safe, is incredibly challenging. That’s especially true since varroa have shown a remarkably rapid ability to develop resistance to different treatment methods as they’re developed. For another, pesticides, and the large corporations that manufacture them, make a convenient and tempting target.
One other thing is very clear from all these surveys—whether from the BIP, NASS, or various European efforts: bees are not facing an apocalypse or serious endangerment as the result of pesticide poisoning.
Jon Entine is the Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project. His biography is here. Twitter: @jonentine.
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Art Whitman, who is president of the Vermont Feed Dealers & Manufacturing Association.
Bees are an important part of Vermont’s ecosystem and protecting them is a high priority for all of us both for pollinating purposes and production of honey.
In an effort to protect and promote a healthy pollinator population, a few years ago the Legislature passed a bill to create the Pollinator Protection Committee which was charged with coming up with recommendations to maintain bee health.
Recommendations from this group included an apiary inspection program, promotion of more diverse forage availability, education around pesticide use, and beekeeper education on disease threats and hive location.
One of the findings of the Pollinator Protection Committee was that Vermont is one of the few states in the U.S. that has not experienced colony collapse disorder. There is no clear understanding what causes colony collapse disorder but it is a very troubling disorder and finding that it has not occurred here was welcome news.
Science has shown that the five main threats to pollinators are the parasitic Varroa mite, a lack of quality forage, poor genetics, pesticide use and inconsistent bee management practices.
Vermont is working to reduce all of these threats in order to strengthen our pollinator population. Increasing the availability of quality forage can be achieved by working with farmers to add flowering plants to their buffer zones and by helping solar farms incorporate flowers into their fields.
Vermont will be instituting a bee hive inventory and inspection program that will be designed to improve management and education of hive owners.
In order to reduce the possible risk of pesticide exposure to bees, Vermont will continue to do water testing, develop educational ads that remind homeowners to follow label instructions when using pesticides and work with farmers to be sure that the use of neonicotinoids does not threaten Vermont’s bees.
The reality is, these pesticides are beneficial when used properly. They allow farmers to get higher yields while planting less land, which means less overall pesticide use. That’s good for the environment. And let’s not forget that bees’ exposure to neonicotinoids (or neonics as they’re called) in fields is limited as the field crops grown in Vermont that use neonics are not pollinated by bees so exposure is accidental.
Our farmers have implemented several best practices that are conducive to bee health, such as no till cropping, the use of cover crops, and planting flowering buffer zones. Some Vermont farmers rely on bees to pollinate their crops. It’s in their best interests to protect them.
Vermonters are doing a good job protecting our pollinators and we should look to improve and enhance these practices. Several beekeepers in Vermont have testified that their losses are as low as they have ever been, around 4 percent even though their bees forage in the middle of high density conventional agricultural land.
One of the many non-farm uses of neonics is to protect public health by preventing ticks and the Powassan virus, which can lead to meningitis, encephalitis and/or death. In addition, they protect the health of our trees by fighting against pests such as the ash borer which has now been found in Vermont and threatens our forest ecology and rural economy.
Every new pesticide introduced is designed either to eliminate a new threat or to reduce the risk of currently used products. Neonicotinoids are much safer than their pesticide predecessors, and as research continues, there’s no doubt they’ll continue to improve. But Vermonters should rest assured. There is no bee-apocalypse.
You’ve heard the news about honeybees. “Beepocalypse,” they’ve called it. Beemageddon. America’s honeybees are dying, putting honey production and $15 billion worth of pollinated food crops in jeopardy.
The situation has become so dire that earlier this year the White House put forth the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a 64-page policy framework for saving the nation’s bees, butterflies and other pollinating animals.
The trouble all began in 2006 or so, when beekeepers first began noticing mysterious die-offs. It was soon christened “colony collapse disorder,” and has been responsible for the loss of 20 to 40 percent of managed honeybee colonies each winter over the past decade.
The math says that if you lose 30 percent of your bee colonies every year for a few years, you rapidly end up with close to 0 colonies left. But get a load of this data on the number of active bee colonies in the U.S. since 1987. Pay particular attention to the period after 2006, when CCD was first documented.
As you can see, the number of honeybee colonies has actually risen since 2006, from 2.4 million to 2.7 million in 2014, according to data tracked by the USDA. The 2014 numbers, which came out earlier this year, show that the number of managed colonies — that is, commercial honey-producing bee colonies managed by human beekeepers — is now the highest it’s been in 20 years.
So if CCD is wiping out close to a third of all honeybee colonies a year, how are their numbers rising? One word: Beekeepers.
A 2012 working paper by Randal R. Tucker and Walter N. Thurman, a pair of agricultural economists, explains that seasonal die-offs have always been a part of beekeeping: they report that before CCD, American beekeepers would typically lose 14 percent of their colonies a year, on average.
So beekeepers have devised two main ways to replenish their stock. The first method involves splitting one healthy colony into two separate colonies: put half the bees into a new beehive, order them a new queen online (retail price: $25 or so), and voila: two healthy hives.
The other method involves simply buying a bunch of bees to replace the ones you lost. You can buy 3 pounds of “packaged” bees, plus a queen, for about $100 or so.
Beekeepers have been doing this sort of thing since the advent of commercial beekeeping. When CCD came along, it roughly doubled the usual annual rate of bee die-offs. But this doesn’t mean that bees are going extinct, just that beekeepers need to work a little harder to keep production up.
The price of some of that extra work will get passed on to the consumer. The average retail price of honey has roughly doubled since 2006, for instance. And Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, points out that pollination fees — the amount beekeepers charge to cart their bees around to farms and pollinate fruit and nut trees — has approximately doubled over the same period.
“It’s not the honey bees that are in danger of going extinct,” Kaplan wrote in an email, “it is the beekeepers providing pollination services because of the growing economic and management pressures. The alternative is that pollination contracts per colony have to continue to climb to make it economically sustainable for beekeepers to stay in business and provide pollination to the country’s fruit, vegetable, nut and berry crops.” We have also been importing more honey from overseas lately.
But rising prices for fruit and nuts hardly constitute the “beepocalypse” that we’ve all been worried about. Tucker and Thurman, the economists, call this a victory for the free market: “Not only was there not a failure of bee-related markets,” they conclude in their paper, “but they adapted quickly and effectively to the changes induced by the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder.”
Lake Champlain is a valuable and treasured resource in Vermont. It provides drinking water, recreational opportunities and, of course, spectacular scenery. Through voluntary conservation, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked hand-in-hand with local producers to plan and improve soil and water management practices throughout its adjacent watersheds.
Although NRCS is just one of the many entities working in close partnership with farmers to ensure the future health of Lake Champlain, I am pleased to report that recently analyzed models indicate a reduction of phosphorus runoff into the lake as a result of these effective efforts.
This is encouraging, especially during this time of the year, when we see the impacts of polluted runoff in the form of blue-green algae blooms, which can be harmful to pets and people. This data is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the farmers in the basin. I applaud each and every one of you for going above and beyond to ensure that your farming practices are helping improve soil and water quality.
In 2015, NRCS developed a “Strategic Watershed Planning Approach.” This five year plan targets the most impaired watersheds – those known to contribute higher concentrations of agricultural phosphorus runoff to the lake. Over the past two years, we have targeted financial and technical resources to St. Albans Bay, Pike River, and Rock River in Franklin County, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. We worked closely with our state and local conservation partners to help farmers install conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, including practices such as reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing.
I am thrilled we are able to use these early estimates to let farmers know their efforts are making a difference in the health of Lake Champlain. And I urge farmers in these four target areas to visit with their local NRCS office to explore the assistance available to them.
We have estimated total phosphorus reductions for the first year of the five year project, and you can see these encouraging results at http://bit.ly/VTwatersheds
We remain committed to working with Vermont’s farmers, in the basin and beyond, who are doing their part to ensure our state’s natural resources are protected. And, the recent rollout of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is an ideal way to reward and recognize Vermont’s conservation farmers. This unique program is a partnership effort between the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, USDA-NRCS, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension.
I believe that farmers who are going above and beyond to protect and improve the natural resources on and around their farming operations should be publically recognized for their stewardship.
Our ultimate goal is to show measurable water quality improvement as a result of targeted conservation efforts, and we will continue to monitor our progress and share the impacts of conservation within the Basin. Stay tuned for an upcoming announcement on additional target watersheds. There is much more work to be done, but I am confident that the dedication and perseverance of Vermont’s farmers will help the state reach its goals, and that collectively, we can protect our beloved Lake Champlain.
Vicky M. Drew, of Georgia, is the the state conservationist with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A European court has a chance to weigh whether biased science can justify a costly chemical ban.
Feb. 15, 2017 2:37 p.m. ET
A pesticides ban in Europe could soon be overturned on the grounds that it was based on unreliable data. Meanwhile, revelations that one of the scientists behind the ban was also involved with a nongovernmental organization that campaigns against pesticides continue to undermine the ban’s integrity.
Two European chemical companies, Bayer and Syngenta, appeared before the European Court of Justice this week to argue that the European Union should revoke a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. “Neonics,” as these sprays are known, were introduced in the 1990s as a safer, greener alternative.
One of the advantages of neonics is that they can be used as a seed “dressing,” so that crop plants are protected from birth and need less or no spraying later. They only affect those insects that eat the crop, not innocent bystanders.
Though green activist groups claim neonics devastate bee populations, there remains much debate over how much neonic residue gets into the pollen that bees consume. But the fact remains that there has been no “bee-pocalypse.” In Europe and North America, honeybee numbers are higher today than they were two decades ago when neonics were first introduced.
As for wild bees, a 2015 study in Nature found that only a tiny fraction of wild-bee species pollinate crops. These bees, which come into the most-direct contact with neonics, are thriving.
The real danger lurks elsewhere. The French Ministry of Agriculture recently concluded that diseases, bad beekeeping and famine are the main causes of bee mortality. Pesticides play only a minor part. France’s final court of appeals in civil and criminal matters would agree. In a ruling last month, the Court of Cassation found that no causal connection has been established between the neonic Imidacloprid and bee mortality.
Such findings are in stark contrast to the recommendations in the draft Bee Guidance Document (BGD), a paper prepared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the scientific basis of the 2013 neonic ban. But the BGD’s methodology also raises many questions. It ruled out large-scale field studies and forced regulators to rely on lab studies mostly using unrealistically high doses of neonics. Acceptable field studies had to demonstrate with 95% statistical confidence that a neonic would have no more than a 7% effect on the number of bees within a hive, even though bee numbers can fluctuate by twice as much just from cold weather. Field studies were also required to cover 448 square kilometers to meet the BGD’s conditions. Each test field had to be 2 kilometers from every other test field, other crops, orchards and even wildflowers.
No one has figured out how to meet these specifications. Meanwhile, some 18 major field studies and nine review articles published over the past 10 years have overwhelmingly showed that under realistic conditions, neonics have no effect on bees at the hive level.
It’s as if the EFSA’s standard of evidence was purposely set so high as to preclude evidence of neonic safety.
David Zaruk, an investigative journalist who blogs as the Risk Monger, may have discovered how this happened. He noticed that although the EFSA working group that prepared the BGD had removed all scientists affiliated with industry-funded research during the preparatory work, it retained several activists among its five final members. One of them was Gérard Arnold, at the time also listed as the scientific coordinator at Apimondia, a beekeeper lobbying group.
When Mr. Zaruk asked the EFSA about this, he writes that the head of EFSA’s legal department agreed that if Mr. Arnold had been working with Apimondia at the same time, this would have been a serious breach of ethics. But Mr. Arnold had assured them that he was not, so the EFSA was willing to overlook an accusation that he was chairing an antipesticide working group for an NGO.
What this doesn’t explain, however, is why, after Mr. Zaruk started making his inquiries, every reference to Mr. Arnold’s work with Apimondia during his EFSA years started disappearing from the internet. When I asked Mr. Arnold about this, he said his work with Apimondia had ended before he started working with EFSA and the Apimondia website had simply been out of date. But given Mr. Arnold’s known antipesticide activism, there was still at best a conflict of interest.
Brussels entrusted a known antipesticide activist with the task of preparing what was supposed to be an objective report on the testing procedures of pesticides. Instead, the EFSA working group, which included Mr. Arnold, resulted in a ban that contradicts scientific evidence and has devastated European farmers. The total cost of the neonic ban has been estimated at some €900 million ($954.1 million) a year for oilseed rape alone. It would seem incumbent on the EFSA to at least perform a thorough investigation.
The EFSA has so far resisted calls for a review and re-examination of the deeply flawed process that resulted in the ban, but the exclusion of evidence under the BGD is one of the central arguments presented to the European Court of Justice this week. The judges there may well take a more objective and science-based view.
Mr. Ridley is a columnist for the Times (U.K.), a member of the House of Lords and the author of “The Evolution of Everything.”