May 20 Monsanto Co is hosting a "Bee Summit."
Bayer AG is breaking ground on a "Bee Care Center." And Sygenta
AG is funding grants for research into the accelerating demise
of honeybees in the United States, where the insects pollinate
fruits and vegetables that make up roughly a quarter of the
The agrichemical companies are taking these initiatives at a
time when their best-selling pesticides are under fire from
environmental and food activists who say the chemicals are
killing off millions of bees. The companies say their pesticides
are not the problem, but critics say science shows the opposite.
Die-offs of bee populations have accelerated over the last
few years to a rate the U.S. government calls unsustainable.
Honeybees pollinate plants that produce roughly 25 percent of
the foods Americans consume, including apples, almonds,
watermelons and beans, according to government reports.
Scientists, consumer groups, beekeepers and others blame the
devastating rate of bee deaths on the growing use of pesticides
sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops
such as corn. Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer
and other agrichemical companies say other factors
such as mites are killing the bees.
"This is a difficult, high stakes battle," said Peter
Jenkins, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety, which sued
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March on
behalf of a group of U.S. beekeepers and environmental and
consumer groups over what they say is a lack of sound regulation
of the pesticides in question.
"They may have a lot of money. But... we're going to win,"
The uproar worries officials at Bayer and Syngenta, who make
the pesticides, as well as Monsanto, DuPont and other
companies who used them as coatings for the seed they sell.
"Everybody is concerned by it," said Monsanto Chief
Technology Officer Robert Fraley in an interview.
Monsanto plans to host a summit in June for experts from
around the country to analyze the issue and discuss potential
solutions. Bayer is breaking ground on a facility in North
Carolina to study bee health.
The European Union said this month it would ban the class of
pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or "neonics," used for corn
and other crops as well as on home lawns and gardens. Similar
constraints in the United States could cost manufacturers
millions of dollars in sales.
"We are concerned... that the science sometimes gets trumped
by the politics," said Dave Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer
CropScience who is meeting with bee keepers and studying the bee
deaths. He said critics "are searching for a culprit."
The companies point to a vicious insect mite as one of many
factors harming the bees.
CORN SEED TREATMENTS
But environmental scientists say evidence increasingly
points to pesticides coating corn seeds as the problem, not
mites. In recent years, U.S. corn seed suppliers have offered
more corn seed pre-treated with types of neonic insecticides so
that as the plant grows it repels harmful pests.
A study published last year by scientists at Purdue
University in Indiana found evidence that planting the coated
corn generates dust that contains very high levels of the
neonics that can move beyond the fields where the seeds are
planted. The researchers said they found the poison in the soil
as well and in pollen collected by bees as food. The neonics
were present on dead bees collected for study.
The study's co-author, Purdue University scientist Christian
Krupke, said the issue needs more research.
Syngenta and Bayer say they are doing just that. This month
both companies announced they were helping fund research grants
awarded to Iowa State University and Ohio State University and a
Canadian farm group to study the impact of insecticidal seed
treatment dust on bee losses.
"This research will provide valuable information," Jay
Overmeyer, an ecotoxicology expert at Syngenta, said in a
A May 1 report funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
found that nearly one in three managed honey bee colonies in the
United States were lost over the winter of 2012-2013. The losses
are 42 percent higher than losses seen the previous winter, the
report found. Fewer bees spells higher food prices, according to
U.S. officials say there is no conclusive proof that
pesticides caused the bee deaths, and they cite many other
factors, including the mites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is "working
aggressively to protect bees and other pollinators from
pesticide risks through regulatory, voluntary and research
programs" but sees no need for a moratorium on pesticides. The
EPA has said it will study the situation, but many experts say
immediate action is needed.
"One third of the food supply depends on pollinators to be
productive," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union
of Concerned Scientists. "It's hard to say that these are
definitively the cause of major bee declines. But there is a lot
of data coming together that should be seriously examined."