Adversaries aren’t waiting for conclusive science on what’s killing the honeybee. They’re taking their fight straight to the public in an intensifying battle for the support of the nation’s consumers.
PART 2 Adversaries aren’t waiting for conclusive science on what’s killing the honeybee. They’re taking their fight straight to the public in an intensifying battle for the support of the nation’s consumers.
Story by Josephine Marcotty
Photos and video by Renée Jones Schneider
Story by Josephine Marcotty, photos and video by Renée Jones Schneider | Second in a series
Kristy Allen and Mark O’Rourke are bee ambassadors with deceptively similar messages. Allen, founder of a small business called the Beez Kneez, pedals through the Twin Cities selling honey from a bike trailer and handing out lawn signs that read, “Healthy bees, healthy lives.” O’Rourke, a seed treatment specialist for Bayer CropScience, travels the country with sleek interactive displays to promote the company’s insecticides and its views on honeybee health.
Allen wears a helmet with bobbing antennae. O’Rourke sports a bee-yellow shirt with the Bayer logo.
But behind their cheery outfits, they are polar opposites in an intensifying national conflict over what’s killing the hardworking insect that has become a linchpin of the American food system.
In a struggle that echoes the discord over climate change, both are striving to win the public to their side in a fight over the pervasive use of pesticides and the alarming decline of bees. Because whoever captures the heart of the public could influence the fate of the honeybee long before scientists or government regulators render a verdict.
“Perception becomes reality,” said David Fischer, director of pollinator safety for Bayer AG, a leading manufacturer of the insecticides under debate. “We are a science-focused company. But that’s not going to convince beekeepers and the public.”
There is remarkably little dispute about the underlying problem: Honeybees are dying. Beekeepers across the United States are losing a fourth to a third of their hives each winter, a dramatic decline that has exposed them as a fragile link in the nation’s food supply chain.
Beez Kneez, a home-grown Minnesota honey company, and BayerCropScience, a high-tech multinational, represent two faces of the battle over insecticides and the peril facing honeybees. (3:12)
U.S. agriculture now depends on that one insect to pollinate $15 billion worth of crops annually — a third of the food we eat. Every year, commercial beekeepers traverse the country with millions of hives, moving them like migrant laborers through blooming fields of almonds, apples, melons and other crops. Even as the total number of U.S. hives has dwindled to 2.5 million, the number of crops depending on them has quadrupled.
The adversaries even agree on some of the causes: A flowerless rural landscape dominated by monoculture cash crops, and the spread of invasive parasites and diseases.
But a decade after honeybees began their precipitous decline, they are still in trouble, and the conflict over the role of insecticides is reaching a crescendo. Bayer sponsors an annual “Bee Care Tour” of universities and community events, while its lobbyists work the nation’s capital. Kids in bee costumes protest at Home Depot stores, and gardeners have become their advocates at garden stores and nurseries where they wield considerable power on behalf of the bee.
Now, even the White House is paying attention. Last month, after a first-ever White House pollinator summit, President Obama ordered his cabinet to to come up with a strategy, including a mandate to “assess the effect of pesticides.”
“There needs to be that public pressure,” said Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The public can change it — even if the [government] does not act.”
At the heart of the struggle lies a handful of chemicals called neonicotinoids. Based on synthetic nicotine and introduced in the mid-1990s, they have swept the globe with breathtaking speed in part because they are lethal to insects, but not to humans and mammals. Today they are the most widely applied insecticides in the world, with sales of $2.6 billion, and turn up in 80 percent of the world’s crops, dozens of garden products, and even pet flea collars.
Much of neonicotinoids’ appeal lies in their delivery system. They are nerve poisons for insects, and, whether used as a crop seed coating or as a liquid injection for trees, they make the plant itself poisonous — a built-in defense whether the plant is under attack by pests or not.
Although conservationists have raised alarms about such pervasive toxins, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the evidence is insufficient to show that neonicotinoids kill bees, and that any risks must be balanced against their economic benefits.
In recent years, however, scientists have produced a surge of research showing that neonicotinoids can cause “sublethal” effects even at doses that don’t kill bees, said Jim Frazier, a leading bee researcher at Pennsylvania State University.
“Everyone who is looking is finding them in lots of different ways,” he said.
The compounds can, for example, cripple bees’ exquisite navigational skills and their ability to find their way home after long trips foraging for nectar and pollen. They may also interfere with a honeybee’s intricate “waggle dance” that tells other bees where to find flowers far from the hive.
Studies also show that neonicotinoids can weaken a bee’s immune system, making it more vulnerable to diseases and parasites. In some cases they can even weaken a queen’s fertility, endangering the hive’s ability to regenerate itself.
Last year, a coalition of food and environmental groups sued the EPA, demanding more rigorous tests. They say that, in its haste to fast-track a new class of toxins, the agency missed what should have been obvious: They can also kill such desirable insects as butterflies, dragonflies and honeybees. In a critical assessment, the Government Accountability Office — an independent watchdog office within the federal government — agreed, saying agency routinely failed to follow up on required research.
“The EPA has not gotten adequate studies, but allowed the products to be sold,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.
His is one of several groups coalescing behind a battle cry taken from Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book on the damage caused by DDT — another “Silent Spring.”
The EPA is accelerating its review of the chemicals and has ordered manufacturers to conduct more realistic field tests. The results, however, won’t emerge until 2017 or 2018.
“We have to have [the] data before we can make that assessment,” said Jim Jones, a top EPA regulator, at a beekeepers’s conference this year.
But no one is waiting for the science.
This spring, new signs at Bachman’s and other nurseries greeted customers as they perused the tables of geraniums and petunias: No “neonics, ” they promised.
Earlier this month Home Depot announced that it would require growers to label plants containing neonicotinoids and see if they can grow plants successfully without them. Other large chains may follow suit.
Joe Bischoff, director of government relations for AmericanHort, the national nursery and horticulture association, says his members are caught in the national crossfire.
“Public perception about it is really taking us in a direction that is not in sync with where the science is,” he said.
The trend may be in its infancy, but it’s not unprecedented. Just a few years ago, several manufacturers stopped using the compound Bisphenol A in baby bottles and children’s drink containers. The chemical had been linked to cancer, but industry phased it out voluntarily long before the science became definitive.
Such incidents reflect a major shift in the consumer economy, said Melissa Abbott, vice president of the Hartman Group, a research firm.
“Consumers have ever so much more power,” she said. “It’s really shifted tremendously in the last ten years.”
Advocates have taken the battle into the political arena as well. This year the Minnesota Legislature passed a law forbidding nurseries to put a “bee friendly” label on plants containing neonicotinoids. And 70 members of Congress, including Minnesotans Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan, have signed onto a national moratorium bill.
The Beez Kneez illustrate how the fight is taking shape.
Kristy Allen started out selling honey in the Twin Cities for her uncle, a Minnesota beekeeper. Soon she and her business partner, Erin Rupp, were managing 65 hives of their own. Now they teach classes in response to the rising interest in back yard beekeeping and operate a “honey house” in Minneapolis, where they spin honey out of hive frames using a pedal-powered contraption of their own design.
Then last fall, the death of one of their hives turned them into grass roots activists. Allen knew that rural beekeepers struggled with die-offs. “But it never crossed my mind that it could happen in the city,” she said.
With the help of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, they traced the deaths to a common commercial pesticide. It wasn’t a neonicotinoid, but it shared a trait that Allen found heartbreaking: It’s used as insurance against the mere possibility of pests, not against the pests themselves.
“We wanted to strategically address the issue without pointing fingers,” Allen said. “We want to be beekeepers, and we can’t be beekeepers if our hives are going to die every year.”
So on a bitterly cold night in January, they held a community meeting, expecting 50 people to show up. Instead, they got 130, including a couple of state legislators. Since then, Allen has testified five times at the State Capitol, launched on online petition for people who promise not to use neonicotinoids in their gardens, and begun shipping lawn signs out of state.
Similar community movements have taken off in Washington state, where some cities have enacted neonicotinoid bans, and in Portland, Ore., where thousands of bumblebees died after linden trees near a Target store were sprayed with neonicotinoids.
Today, using hand-held photos and Rupp’s cartoonlike illustrations, the Beez Kneez team teaches classes to Boy Scouts, schoolchildren, garden clubs and neighborhood activists.
Their first corporate customer? General Mills’ organic division. “The majority of our products are dependent on bees,” said Taylor West, marketing manager for the company’s Small Planet foods division.
On a warm afternoon in June, the class met near a hive in Theodore Wirth Park. “The way we are growing food isn’t working,” Allen said. “Is there a way to grow food that works?”
Last March, in Brookings, S.D., Mark O’Rourke told a different story to about 100 people who came for lunch at Bayer’s Bee Care Tour. On the South Dakota State University campus, Bayer had stationed a truck emblazoned with a bee and Bayer’s own rallying cry: “We Care for Bees.”
“You hear a lot about neonicotinoids in the media,” O’Rourke said as PowerPoint images flashed on the screen behind him. “But there is no link between them and widespread colony losses.”
This was Bayer’s second annual cross-country tour of colleges, agriculture conferences and small towns. “Bee ambassadors” in yellow shirts greeted visitors and showed them displays focusing on what Bayer says is the main threat to bees: An invasive bloodsucking pest called the Varroa mite.
“It’s a very difficult species to control,” O’Rourke said. “It’s very hard to control a bug on a bug.”
Addressing an audience that included local gardeners, farmers and farm suppliers, O’Rourke explained the vital role that Bayer’s insecticides play in agriculture. Without them, he said, the nation would need 3.3 million additional acres of cropland to make up the difference in yields.
“And they don’t make any more land,” he said.
Company officials point out frequently that Bayer needs bees as well. It rents thousands of hives each year to pollinate plants for its seed business.
“We are on both sides of this,” said Fischer, the company’s director of pollinator safety.
So far, Bayer and its allies in agriculture are holding their ground. Last year, Europe adopted a three-year moratorium on neonicotinoids, but the EPA did not follow suit, and it continues to approve new formulations and uses for the insecticides.
And global sales for Bayer's newest crop protection products soared 30 percent between 2012 and 2013, to $686 million.
This year, promising to spend $12 million on bee health, Bayer opened a $2.5 million bee research center at its U.S. headquarters in North Carolina. It’s a light-filled, LEED-certified building where the bees have top status. They occupy a copper and carved-wood hive, with their own sculptured flower garden set off by a warning sign that reads, “Honeybee flight path. Do not go beyond this point.”
At the grand opening in May hundreds of guests, including government officials and representatives from Lowe’s and Home Depot, toured the labs and displays before lunch was served.
And for dessert? A three-tiered honey cake covered with sugar bees.
Since the North Carolina center opened, hundreds of visitors have taken the tour — and the global debate over bees has only intensified.
Earlier this month, the world’s leading authority on species protection issued a long-awaited report on bees and pesticides, a review of 800 studies by 29 scientists. In a conclusion applauded by environmental groups, the International Union for Conservation of Nature team concluded that neonicotinoids’ role in the decline of pollinators and many other species is incontrovertible.
“Far from protecting food production, the use of [neonicotinoids] is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it,” said Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, one of the lead authors.
Bayer responded with studies that reached different conclusions, including one published in April by the Royal Society in Britain. It said evidence of neonicotinoids’ harm is inconclusive and that the public must consider their benefits to agriculture.as well.
Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a leading insect conservation nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., said any fair reading of the science shows that “neonicotinoids are part of the problem.”
But, he added, “It’s an interesting tug of war.”
One that is only escalating.
After this summer’s White House summit on pollinators, Bayer hired a second lobbying firm — this one run by Dick Gephardt, a former House majority leader and a Democratic power broker.
And last week, Allen and Rupp traveled by commuter train and bicycle to St. Cloud for a state honey producers’ conference. There, one by one, beekeepers told emotional stories of hives decimated by the bitter winter and a landscape that has grown hostile to honeybees. Two influential state legislators, Rick Hansen and Jean Wagenius, listened to their stories and offered guidance.
Take the fight to a higher level, they said. “Hire a lobbyist.”