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The Buzz on Corporate CCD Research

by Josh Vincent — last modified Oct 20, 2010 01:31 PM
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A summary of the recent media discussion on possible causes of bee colony collapse disorder.

By now you’ve probably heard about the recent New York Times article entitled, Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery which explained the findings of a new study on bee colony collapse disorder (CCD). This latest study, a collaboration between the University of Montana and the US Army, theorized that CCD might be attributable to a fungus and a virus working together. The lead scientist on this project, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, stated that the combination fungus-virus was present in every defunct colony they observed.

Honey Bee

                    Photo: Erik Hooymans

Amidst worldwide decline in honeybee populations over the past two decades, the list of potential factors leading to CCD has been widely discussed. Pesticides, genetically modified crops and the increasing industrialization of apiculture (beekeeping) have typically ranked high on the list of suspected culprits. It generated some pushback then when this latest study did not examine such environmental and stress factors, but rather suggested a pathogenic cause that would likely encourage further use of pesticides.

Since the article was first published in the Times, subsequent reporting has elaborated upon Bromenshenk’s own history as a beekeeper and a scientist with apparent financial connections to Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of Bayer AG. Bayer is well known as a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. What is only slightly less well known is that they are one of the larger manufacturers of neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of pesticides that has been banned in some places due to the negative impact it has on bees. Katherine Eban's article for Fortune, What a scientist didn't tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths, presents these details clearly. Eban also contends that Bromenshenk stands to profit financially from the verdict of his study as the leader of a company, Bee Alert Technologies, that develops equipment that tests for bee diseases. 

To be fair, those who have reported on it admit that Bromenshenk's study is cautiously written. The science doesn't detail specifically how the lethal fungus-virus relates to CCD, i.e. whether it is a cause, an effect, or some other kind of "marker." All it says is that the combo was present in each of the dead colonies. Some scientists, like Dr. Jennifer Sass at the NRDC, point out that this leaves open the very real possibility that bee colonies are susceptible to the fungus-virus due to immune deficiencies caused by exposure to pesticides. The point is that no one knows for sure because there aren’t enough researchers looking in that direction.

Bromenshenk’s study neglects to investigate pesticide impacts altogether, a detail which seems dubious in light of the money behind the project. Frustration and mistrust about this have led bloggers and readers to fume about this and other, more blatant funding relationships between chemical companies and bee researchers (as in the case of a British CCD research project co-funded by a biotechnology firm and Syngenta, another maker of neonicotinoid pesticides who’s been in trouble over bees). The general consensus seems to be that there is a trend of industry funded science directing CCD research away from pesticides. Whether or not this is true, it’s clear that many simply aren’t looking closely enough at the pesticide connection.

At NCAP, we are concerned about the impact that pesticides can have on beneficial insects like bees. This has prompted our work with farmers in Idaho to reduce the use of neonicotinoids in potato fields.