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Battle over insecticides pits beekeepers against agribusinesses

MINNEAPOLIS – 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 Crop Science, 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 scientific discord over climate change, both are striving to win public support in a fight over the pervasive use of pesticides and the alarming decline of bees. Whoever sways the public could influence the fate of the honeybee long before scientists or 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 decline that has exposed them as a fragile link in the nation’s food supply chain.

U.S. agriculture depends on bees 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 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 Washington. 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.

The White House is paying attention. Last month, President Obama ordered his Cabinet to come up with a strategy for protecting bees, 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.”

Nicotine-based chemical

At the heart of the struggle are 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 90 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 plants themselves 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 contribute to the decline of bees, and that any risks must be balanced against their economic benefits.

In recent years, however, scientists have shown that neonicotinoids can cause “sublethal” effects even at doses that don’t kill bees, said Jim Frazier, a 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’ 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 reproduce.

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 federal watchdog – agreed, saying the EPA routinely did not 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.

The EPA is accelerating its review of the chemicals and has ordered manufacturers to conduct more realistic field tests. The results, however, won’t come until 2017 or 2018.

“We have to have data before we can make that assessment,” said Jim Jones, a top EPA regulator, at a beekeepers’ conference this year.

Many won’t wait 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.

Home Depot announced it would require growers to label plants containing neonicotinoids and see if they can grow plants successfully without them.

Beekeepers take action

The Beez Kneez illustrates 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 backyard beekeeping and operate a “honey house” in Minneapolis, where they spin honey out of hive frames using a pedal-powered device of their own design.

Last fall, the death of one of their hives turned them into 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.”

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.

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. “But there is no link between them and widespread colony losses.”

This was Bayer’s second 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 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.

Companies standing firm

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 April hundreds of guests, including government officials and representatives of 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.

The world’s leading authority on species protection issued a 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 Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, one of the lead authors.

Bayer points to 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.”

It’s 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.