opened white wooden bee hive, covered in bees
Community Work

Are Corporations and Bees a Good Mix?

Dear Readers: After my last report on the state of bees in the U.S., some of you requested that I report next on corporate activity aimed at solving the problem. I have dug deep and found too much information to fit into 1 blog post. So for today, this PSA focuses on the company that may be the most recognizable to you—Bayer. I will relay the information that they have on their own site—what they say about themselves—and then report on what independent scientists say. Let’s get started.

The Bayer Bee Care Program

Bayer Crop Science, and all of the largest crop science companies, are companies of scientists, hard at work and dedicated to science. Their R & D departments are interior laboratories that embrace and include extensive field work. In 2011, Bayer established the Bee Care Program which “aims to strike a balance between helping farmers expand food production and contributing to the health, safety and diversity of pollinators.”

The program manages over 30 collaborative scientific projects worldwide…working on customized approaches for specific local and regional needs. The company points out that the solutions will not be “one-size-fits-all” due to the variety of bees, climates, wildflowers, crops, and so on.

The Bayer program is divided broadly into 3 categories: Feed a Bee, Healthy Hives, and Sustainable Agriculture. All the field work falls within these categories.

https://www.bayer.com/en/bee-health-pollinator-straightforward.aspx

Does the U.S. Need to Catch Up to the EU?

As you may know, Bayer is the largest maker of neonicotinoids, the largest group of pesticides of concern. But they are not the only company that produces them. While lab tests on these pesticides show some danger to bees and other pollinators, field results are at best mixed. And, let’s not forget that the red varroa mite is still considered to be the top threat to bees.

yellow wheat field on left, green corn field on right, row of dirt separates the two fields

Back to neonics, in 2013 the EU banned 3 pesticides in this group, forbidding their use on flowering crops. In April 2018, they expanded the ban—to include all field crops. All neonics remain approved for use in large commercial greenhouses.

It was a controversial vote: Romania and Denmark voted against the expanded ban, and 13 countries abstained. While the environmentalists applauded the vote, the farmers were concerned about yields.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/european-union-expands-ban-three-neonicotinoid-pesticides

I can attest to the farmers’ concern. Last May I attended an annual meeting of farmers in my area of the U.S. At lunch, I learned a lot talking to the very friendly group. One of them turned to me and said (paraphrased), “We can’t get the yields we need to earn a living and feed all you city folk. You want us to go back to the 19th century, but are you willing to give up your iPhones?” I had to concede the point.

The Problem

It’s largely a problem that occurs in Spring. The pesticide coats the seed, and the planting process kicks up a lot of dust containing some residue from the seed coatings. When a breeze carries the dust to flowering plants, the residue kills the bees visiting those plants.

Independent Scientists

Thanks to NPR, we have a close-up look at 2 scientists who disagree on the problem and solution. “Several years ago, Christian Krupke, an insect specialist at Purdue University in Indiana, became one of the first researchers to discover that rogue dust was wiping out bee colonies. At first, Art Schaafsma, an entomologist at the University of Guelph, in Canada, didn’t believe it was true.”

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/05/27/530028003/two-scientists-two-different-approaches-to-saving-bees-from-poison-dust

aerial view of tractor on brown field, kicking up dust, eagle flying over the dust

Eventually Schaafsma came to the light and regretted the lost time he incurred because of his skepticism. Since his acceptance of the dust problem, he has developed a filter for seed planters that reduces the dust by 99%. The large equipment manufacturers are having none of it because they have developed their own filter, which Schaafsma claims doesn’t work well enough.

Meanwhile, Krupke continues his work to study whether pesticide-coated seeds are worthwhile. His studies point to at best a marginal improvement in yield. Broadening his work to partner with 7 Midwestern universities, results show a more decisive conclusion: “neonicotinoid-treated soybean seeds performed no better than untreated seeds in fending off aphids…” And another study finds widely mixed results with corn seeds.

Bayer points to the overwhelming number of farmers buying coated seeds as proof that the coating works. I’m sure the scientists at Bayer realize that this is a classic circular reasoning fallacy.

Finally

We are faced with a need to convince farmers, who Schaafsma believes, will be more inclined to control dust than to give up their seed-coatings. And what does Bayer say? They have developed their own dust filter, clearly supporting their stated objective above: that they are working to find a “balance between helping farmers expand food production and contributing to the health, safety and diversity of pollinators.” While this may seem like a self-serving rationale, let’s remember the worldwide need to increase food production.

In my next post, we’ll talk about Syngenta.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and concerns below. I’d also be happy to dig in further on any questions you have!

2 thoughts on “Are Corporations and Bees a Good Mix?”

  1. Hi Mary Carol, thank you for doing these “deep dives” for us! I feel a little embarrassed asking you about this, but since you offered–I’m wondering if the use of the pesticides has affected the red varroa mite? Is there any correlation between increased numbers of the mite and use of pesticides?

    1. Sooo glad you asked. And your hunch is correct…scientists are studying a potential link between increase in varroa mites and neonics usage. I will be happy to put a little summary in my next post about that. The read will take me some time, since there are published scientific papers on the topic. But I look forward to it and will put something in my next post about it. Thanks for asking!

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