Are These Nicotine-Like Insecticides Killing Bees?

A bumblebee in Stammer Park, Brighton where Dave Goulson investigates the effects of neonictinoids on pollinators. / Courtesy Brett Essler.


Halfway between Düsseldorf and Cologne lies Monheim am Rhein, Germany, a town of about 40,000 tucked into a bend of the Upper Rhine River. Here you will find the Bayer CropScience Facility , a sprawling, 160-acre campus that is home to the Bee Care Center , where the 150-year-old company’s top researchers on honeybee health come together.

Four hundred miles away, Brighton, England’s Stanmer Park — a nature reserve reached by a narrow, dirt road not far from the University of Sussex — is a study in contrast. Just past a large mansion built in 1722 (and once home to King George IV’s mistress) sits a collection of small, overgrown organic farming plots, beautifully unkempt meadows and the occasional large-scale sculpture. This is where Dave Goulson, University of Sussex biology professor and one of the world’s foremost bumblebee experts, studies the effects of neonicotinoids, a kind of pesticide, on pollinators.

These two facilities neatly represent two sides of a raging debate over the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the phenomenon of bee colonies dying off at an alarming rate. Many blame the neonicotinoids for the scourge. Research has poured in largely from two sectors: universities and private companies. Often, those private companies are the same companies that manufacture the pesticides. Scientists like Goulson see a glaring conflict of interest; companies like Bayer see a need for more research and have the dollars to back it.

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Over the course of a tightly-scheduled business day, Bayer allowed me access not only to the Bee Care Center, but to a massive storage facility housing 2.5 million chemical compound samples in 16 racks stretching 22 feet high and nearly 50 feet deep. The facility adds up to 150,000 new compounds each year and fields as many as 2,000 requests a day from Bayer crop scientists.

A five-minute walk from the climate-controlled comfort of the Bee Care Center are ten honeybee hives set in a small meadow kept by Peter Trodtfeld, Bayer’s Bee Health Expert, a thoughtful and talkative man with whom I would spend the better part of an eight-hour day.

Trodtfeld drove me to a nearly-300-acre trial farm in nearby Burscheid where white tents, called tunnels, are used to test the effects of insecticide-treated flowers and crops on honeybees. Along the 17-mile route from Monheim, we passed Bayer Leverkusen, a 30,000-capacity arena emblazoned with the company’s logo.

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In Brighton, Goulson drives me in his black Renault van to a fenced-off plot deep in Stanmer’s reserve where he and his research assistants maintain bumblebee nests.

Bumblebees, along with other wild pollinators like butterflies and beetles, tend to get short shrift when it comes to doomsday headlines and research funding. One, bumblebees do not produce honey; two, they can be harder to study given the manner in which they nest.

“It’s not especially beautiful,” Goulson joked. “The bumblebees are in the outdoor phase of the research.”

“They’re all just foraging. They’ve been dosed with pesticides or parasites. We’ve basically exposed them to a disease and different mixtures of pesticides, in different combinations.”

Peter Trodtfeld, Bayer’s Bee Health Expert. / Courtesy Brett Essler.

Goulson and his team will track the bumblebees over time. Scattered throughout the small organic farm, the nests are essentially plastic boxes with small valves from which the bees can travel in and out. In the fields, the dosed bees will feed on a wide variety of pesticide-free flowers, trees and crops, and Goulson and his team will measure their health and habits.

Back on the University of Sussex campus, Goulson and a research assistant lead me into small darkroom with a “WARNING — LIVE BEES INSIDE” sign. There, under red light — bumblebees can’t see red — was another bumblebee nest under observation. Goulson cracked open the plastic lid and I craned my neck to listen to the buzz saw-like drone.

“It’s actually pretty unimpressive, what we have here,” Goulson says, and compared to Bayer’s sprawling Monheim campus, it is. But what Goulson’s operation may lack in wow factor, it makes up for in influence.

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In late June, days before I met with Goulson and visited the Bayer facility, the Obama administration announced the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force, acknowledging that pesticides may be harming honeybees and other essential pollinators.

Since 2006, ten million U.S. honeybee hives have been lost, at a cost of $2 billion. Honeybee pollination supports about one-third of all food we consume, a value of an estimated $37 billion to $91 billion worldwide.

Scientists are still unable to pinpoint a single cause of CCD, but many believe that neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that is now the most widely used in the world, are a significant factor.

Neonicotinoids (literally, new nicotine-like insecticides, but commonly referred to as neonics) are designed to protect the plant in its early growth stages by attacking the central nervous system of their targeted pests, causing paralysis and, eventually, death. The delivery method is presumed preferable to alternatives that affect mammals’ nervous systems, but according to a recent report by the Xerces Society, a nonprofit invertebrate conservation organization, the evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, even in lower, sub-lethal doses, may be harmful to a wide variety of beneficial insects and birds, and are becoming pervasive in rivers and streams.

Researchers have also begun looking at the effects of neonics on humans and the early results are cause for concern. A study from UNC Chapel Hill and UC Davis released earlier this year suggests that exposure to neonicotinoids present in Bayer’s commonly-used flea and tick medication Advantage by pregnant women may be linked to Autism spectrum disorder.

Honeybee pollination supports about one-third of all food we consume, a value of an estimated $37 billion to $91 billion worldwide.

Goulson first became interested in the potential impact that neonicotinoids could be having on pollinators like bumblebees four or five years ago. “I didn’t take it very seriously,” he says. “There were simply a growing number of people flagging neonics as a big issue.”

Goulson, who has written several books on bumblebees, began reading other literature in the field — much of which found that neonics may be hindering bees’ navigational abilities — and then set about his own research.

“It was really simple,” he says. “We just got bumblebee nests and we either gave them clean food or food plus neonics for two weeks in the lab. Then we put the nest outside. They have to go gather their own food and do what the bumblebee nest would naturally do in a natural way. We weighed them and then we just monitor how they all did.”

The effects, according to Goulson, were “massive.” There was an 85 percent drop in the number of new queens produced in the neonic tree compared to controls. If a bumblebee nest were feeding on a crop treated with neonics, the damage would be far reaching, he concluded.

Goulson’s 2012 findings — along with a paper from French researchers demonstrating that nonlethal exposure of honeybees to neonics caused high mortality due to homing failure — proved highly influential, helping to persuade the French government to pressure the European Commission into banning the use of neonics on flowering crops and other bee-attractive plants. The two-year moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids — thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, and clothianidin — began December 1, 2013.

Goulson is not impressed with the ban, saying no benefits will emerge in just two years.

“It’s better than nothing. That’s probably the kindest thing I can say about the moratorium,” he says.

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Upon entering Bayer’s Bee Care Center conference room, the eye is drawn not to a top-of-the-line espresso maker or the quirky honeybee facts on the walls, but to two large models. The first is of a Varroa mite, ferocious-looking at hundreds of times its actual size. The second model shows a honeybee besieged by its nemesis, the Varroa attached to its thorax in all its parasitic glory.

The Varroa destructor, a 1.6 mm wide and 1.1 mm long reddish-brown parasite, has been attacking honeybees for thousands of years.

Bayer's trial farm in Burscheid, Germany. / Courtesy Brett Essler.

The mite’s small size allows it to fit between bees’ abdominal segments, where it feeds on hemolymph, the arthropod version of blood and bodily fluid, and also spreads deadly viruses. The female mite enters the honeybee’s brood cell — the part of the colony where bee larvae develop — and lays eggs on the larvae once the cell has been closed.

Bayer spends a large amount of its bee-related research, development and public relations efforts on combating the Varroa mite, in what critics have called a distraction from the very real impacts of neonicotinoids.

The link between Varroa and neonics is still an open question. Bees have natural ways to fight off mites — such as grooming and brood rest — but there is evidence that neonic exposure may weaken bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to viruses spread by Varroa, like deformed wing virus.

“Varroa control is possible, but what we need here is a very harmonized strategy,” Trodtfeld says, noting that currently the strategy is “heterogeneous,” varying from beekeeper to beekeeper at the local level. “We are working close together with bee institutes and universities to find here a better support and solution for the beekeepers.”

One way Bayer hopes to standardize the fight against Varroa is the Varroa gate, a new product expected to hit the German market in 2017. The gate is installed at the hive entrance, forcing bees to brush against an anti-mite chemical upon entering.

‘We, in the research community, truly have no dog in the fight; I work a lot with pesticides and pesticide companies and I’m not going to suggest that the world go organic overnight because that’s a luxury that most of the world doesn’t have’

Bayer’s focus on the Varroa mite may, indeed, offer innovative solutions to lowering the threat of the mites, curb Colony Collapse Disorder and empower beekeepers to contain their hive losses. But many have raised questions about the company’s research credibility, as it has a direct financial stake in the production and use of neonics.

According to recent figures from Buglife, a European organization devoted to the protection of invertebrates, neonics boast a “global market share now estimated at around 40 percent and sales of over U.S. $2.63 billion in 2011.” A Bayer spokesperson would not comment on the company’s neonic profits or market share, but did note that the ban has affected neonic sales.

“The net impact was significantly less, as alternative products compensate,” he added.

Bayer has vigorously defended themselves against the recent research findings of Harvard School of Public Health’s Chengsen Lu, who found that “neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter.”

At Bayer’s Monheim campus, I sat down with Christian Maus, Bayer’s global pollinator safety manager, and Trodtfeld to discuss Bayer’s criticisms of research findings.

Maus felt that studies produced dire-sounding results when neonics were incorrectly applied. The damage to bees in the Lu study, he says, is similar to giving a human “the caffeine equivalent of 200 cups of coffee.”

Maus also addressed the concerns of many critics who argue that some neonicotinoids may present a danger to bees when paired with chemicals such as fungicides. While he says that there are a few combinations that are harmful, the simple solution to not co-apply those chemicals.

The problem with studies conducted by Bayer and other agrochemical companies, critics like Christian Krupke, a Purdue University pest management researcher, warn, is that they are largely proprietary and not publicly available.

“We, in the research community, truly have no dog in the fight,” says Krupke. “I work a lot with pesticides and pesticide companies and I’m not going to suggest that the world go organic overnight because that’s a luxury that most of the world doesn’t have.”

According to Krupke, research conducted on behalf of companies involved in the pesticide business stifles frank discussions of the effects of pesticides within the scientific community.

Dave Goulson, University of Sussex biology professor, at his Brighton, England research facility in Stanmer Park. / Courtesy Brett Essler.

Maus argues that many studies incorrectly tackle the problem of CCD on a micro level, looking at the effect of neonics on individual bees instead of colonies.

“The individual worker bee has a lifespan of three to four weeks only in the summertime,” says Maus. “A bee colony is very resilient when it comes to things that affect individual worker bees.”

Goulson, among others, disputes the company’s assertion that what harms the individual bee does not harm the colony.

“You’re constrained by what’s possible,” Goulson says about the difficulty in executing realistic field studies. “Your control is getting contaminated with pesticides, every time. If you want a good experiment, you have to compromise a little on realism.”

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Driving back to campus from Stanmer, Goulson told me he could no longer be just an academic dedicated to objectively presenting research in the face of large public relations and lobbying operations. Days after I met with him, Goulson joined Buglife at a Brussels conference announcing a new study critical of neonics, and he does not shy away from confronting companies like Syngenta on social media.

If the neonic ban is extended in Europe — as many, including Goulson, suspect it will be — all eyes will be on North America, where Canada is now considering a ban, and the U.S. still faces a lengthy debate. Currently, it seems the U.S. may take a more incremental, decentralized approach to mitigating neonic use. Following the lead of other Washington cities, a recent Seattle resolution bans the use of neonics on municipal property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also pledged to phase out neonics in federal wildlife refuges, along with GMO feed crops, beginning in 2016.

But simply banning another chemical, says Goulson, will not solve the bee crisis.

“I think the bigger picture is how do we shape the future of farming and food production in the world,” Goulson says. “Banning one thing is not going to change anything. It’ll just mean that they’ll replace it with something else.”

Are These Nicotine-Like Insecticides Killing Bees?